How top performers work less and achieve more: An interview with Morten Hansen

Why do some people perform better at work than others? This deceptively simple question continues to confound professionals in all sectors who want to advance and succeed in today’s ultra-competitive workplace. We often equate working longer hours with success, but the fact is that type of work leads to stress, burnout, and overall inferior work performance.

IABC Associate Editor Khyla Flores asked University of California, Berkeley, professor Morten Hansen, Ph.D., to discuss his new study of more than 5,000 managers and employees, which shows that top performers actually work less but do better work. Hansen argues that we have the wrong work paradigm, pushing people for more when really we need to retool our everyday efforts and work smarter.

In his book Great at Work: How top performers do less, work better, and achieve more, Hansen compiles the most actionable insights from his research into seven “smarter work practices” to show how we can work smarter instead of harder by selecting a few activities and applying intense, targeted effort. By improving on these seven practices, such as matching your passion and purpose, learning a little every day, and avoiding the pitfalls of uneven collaboration, Hansen demonstrates how individuals can boost their performance far more consistently and effectively than if they relied on talent, luck, or the sheer number of hours worked, and how managers can help inspire this approach in their teams.

Khyla Flores: Why do we often equate more hours worked with better performance and how is this detrimental to our productivity?

Morten Hansen: We have a false belief that piling on more hours of work leads to better output. In my data, more hours improve performance, but only up to a point. If you increase your hours to 50 hours per week on average, your performance goes up quite a bit. But from 50 to 65 hours, that performance increase flattens out, and beyond 65 hours, your performance goes down. That happens because people’s quality of work deteriorates as people work lots of hours. Working harder than others is not a good approach to becoming a top performer.

KF: Your book talks about how the highest achievers “do less and obsess.” Can you explain what you mean?

MH: They follow a contrarian view of work: When others pile on tasks, they cut back, and when others say “yes” to new requests, they say “no.” They have discovered that incredibly high quality of work demands extreme focus. You can’t do truly excellent work if you’re trying to do too many things.

KF: The advice of focusing has been around for a long time, so what’s different here?

MH: The idea of focusing—choosing priorities—is not new. But it is an incomplete and misleading piece of advice. If all you do is focus, you won’t be a top performer. The best do something in addition: They obsess over the few things they focus on. They go all in and dedicate a huge degree of effort. They pay fanatic attention to the details of the work and keep on working to achieve perfection. That obsession is only possible if you focus on a tiny set of priorities. In fact, it is the other way around: The best seek to obsess, and therefore they must focus. Obsession to perfect drives them to focus. Most people don’t get that idea about focusing, so they skip the obsession part.

KF: Are happiness and engagement attainable workplace goals, and how can companies help employess achieve them?   

MH: If we look solely at what drives performance at work, we find that people who are passionate about what they do and have a strong sense of purpose perform the best. They channel more energy per hour they work. It follows that managers who want to maximize performance need to instill more passion and purpose in the teams they lead. That’s a far smarter way to manage than trying to pay people more to work more.

KF: What can managers start doing today to improve employee engagement?

MH: The two big motivational drivers for people are passion and purpose: They yearn to feel excited about what they do, and to feel that what they do have a meaningful impact. Managers must figure out what makes each employee feel such passion and purpose, as each person is different. Armed with that insight, they can modify a job description somewhat to make it more exciting and meaningful for everyone. We found that each job can often be tweaked in some direction to accomplish that; it’s not necessary for people to change professions to find purpose and passion.

KF: What is the one thing you have to get right to collaborate more effectively?

MH: People commit two sins of collaboration at work: They either under- or over-collaborate. That is, they collaborate not at all, or they collaborate on the wrong things. Thus the one thing you must do is to select a few—and only a few—high-value collaboration activities and say no to the rest. Making this selection is the one most important thing to get right.

Written by Khyla Flores for CW Magazine.