A 5-year study of 5,000 workers reveals exactly how you’re sabotaging your own success at work

You have more control over your workday than you think.

You have more control over your workday than you think.
Strelka Institute/Flickr

  • “Great at Work” by Morten T. Hansen suggests that working harder isn’t the best way to achieve success.
  • Instead, it’s about working smarter – maximizing the effort and energy you put in, and the value you put out.
  • The author recommends declining assignments from your boss on occasion and not tracking your productivity in terms of hours worked.

There are few things more frustrating than seeing a coworker hit a sales target, or draw praise from management, or (the horror!) get promoted – when you just know they don’t work as hard as you do.

Great at Work,” a new book by Morten T. Hansen, who is a management professor at University of California, Berkeley, aims to address precisely this dilemma.

The insights Hansen shares are based on a five-year study he ran, in which he surveyed 5,000 employees at large US companies. Hansen asked these employees to rate either their own, their boss’, or their direct report’s performance and to answer a series of questions about the person’s work habits.

As it turns out, the top performers in the study didn’t work harder – they worked “smarter,” which is a phrase so vague and overused that you’d be justified in rolling your eyes. But Hansen breaks down exactly what it means to work smarter, and gives actionable steps for getting there.

Below, I’ve pulled out the two insights I found most compelling.

1. Stop blaming your boss for your poor performance

Hansen recommends a strategy he calls “do less, then obsess.” The idea is to zero in on a few top priorities and throw all your efforts into those.

Employees in Hansen’s study who worked this way performed better – but only 16% displayed this kind of laser focus.

Interestingly, Hansen writes that 24% of all employees “blamed their inability to focus on their boss’s lack of direction or a broader organizational complexity in their company.”

To be clear, they’re probably right. Most everyone knows what it’s like to have a boss who comes up with a shiny-new assignment every hour, making it impossible for you to concentrate on anything.

But Hansen recommends saying “no” to at least some of those new assignments. For example, a junior management consultant in the study told a partner at his firm that he simply couldn’t handle another project if the partner wanted excellent work. The partner agreed, and backed off.

That anecdote reminded me of something I read in “Designing Your Life,” by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

One woman, who was dissatisfied with her job, kept a record of the work activities that gave her energy, and those that drained it. When she decided to simply stop doing the enervating activities, no one noticed and she was much happier.

To be sure, it won’t always be this easy. The point here is to realize that you can help shape the nature of your work – especially if you communicate to your boss that you have the company’s best interests at heart.

2. Aim to put in more effort, not more time

One of the key takeaways from “Great at Work” is that the number of hours you work doesn’t matter that much to your performance – or at least not as much as you might think. Instead, it’s about the effort you put in during those hours.

One way to maximize your effort? A strategy Hansen calls “matching,” or finding the overlap between pursuing your passion and having a clear sense of purpose at work. In other words, you feel personally fulfilled and you’re contributing to society.

Hansen’s study found that people who matched passion with purpose performed better than people who lack one or the other (or both). The case studies revealed why: The matchers approached their work with greater energy than everyone else.

Importantly, this doesn’t mean you have to find a new job that allows you to match passion and purpose.

Hansen cites Yale management professor Amy Wrzesniewski’s research on “job crafting“: By tweaking your actual work activities or the way you perceive those activities, you can find a new sense of meaning and/or purpose in your work.

On the other hand, if you are job-searching, try to find a role that allows you to match passion and purpose on a daily basis.