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Great at Work - Book Review

1 March 2019
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More" is a book written in 2018 by Morten Hansen, a professor at Berkeley and Apple University. Hansen, known for co-authoring "Great by Choice" with renowned writer Jim Collins, shifts the focus of this book to a personal level. The book centers around greatness, similar to Collins' previous works. However, Hansen's approach offers tools for individuals to excel in their work, both independently and through collaboration with others. These tools result from research involving 5,000 employees and managers, alongside supplementary secondary studies. While some tools may sound familiar, most present a unique twist that amplifies their effectiveness.


The book covers the following topics:


·  Personal Behavior

·  Rethinking Learning Approaches

·  Learning

·  Balancing Passion and Discipline

·  Optimizing Collaboration with Peers

·  Navigating Conventions

·  Constructive Arguments and Consensus

·  Purposeful Collaborations

·  Extending Well-Being Beyond Work


It's important to note that the above does not diminish the significance of talent, effort, and luck. The author emphasizes that while these factors contribute, their overall impact is relatively minor compared to the benefits of adopting the seven tools presented.


Can these tools be applied universally? It's highly likely; I can personally attest to their relevance, at least in my context. The following excerpt provides a summary, while a more comprehensive understanding can be obtained by reading the complete document.


Personal Behavior

Achieving Greater Efficiency in Less Time:

Research suggests that working extended hours is not the determining factor for achieving excellence, contrary to the common saying "excellence takes time." It's important to note – dedicating an extra 10 hours per week (1 additional hour each day for five days, along with five extra hours during the weekend) can yield benefits. However, committing to 50-65 hours per week, or even more, does not inherently guarantee success.


The most significant recommendation, supported by extensive research and its influence on employee performance (hence the book's title), is as follows: Focus your efforts on prioritizing and concentrating solely on activities that generate the highest value. Within these pursuits, the advice is to specialize and execute them with astute professionalism, considering all implications (starting with doing less and then refining obsessively). In essence – invest deeply rather than broadly within a defined scope.



  • Embrace the power of saying "no." Convincing ourselves to take on tasks diminishes our ability and compromises the quality of service and overall professionalism. Recognize that actual multitasking ability is not as significant as commonly believed.

  • Minimalism embodies perfection. Understand that more does not necessarily mean better.

  • Reduce distractions that impede focus. When tackling a task that requires completion, take proactive measures to prevent potential distractions (managing your environment, phone usage, etc.).

  • Align your deliverables with supervisor expectations.

  • Exhibit meticulousness and inquire about each stage in the subjects/tasks you handle, emphasizing details and precision.


The above practices intend to uphold the value of talent, diligence, and opportunities. Their contribution is acknowledged, yet the core message is that judiciously applying these recommendations can far outweigh their impact.


Are these principles universally applicable? It is highly likely. I can affirm their relevance, at least within my context. The following excerpt provides a concise overview, while a more comprehensive understanding can be gained from reading the entire content.



Rethinking Learning Approaches

Beyond simply selecting the activities to which we direct our focus, periodic evaluation and recalibration of our course of action hold significant importance. A prime example of this lies in the restructuring of school schedules. Schools have shifted their approach to encourage students to engage with new study material and read independently at home, reserving classroom time for collaborative practice. This shift recognizes the enhanced value that teachers can provide through face-to-face interaction with students. A study involving 5,000 individuals underscored the benefits of redesigning work as a substantial avenue for improving both the work itself and employees' well-being. This redesign sometimes involved altering the trajectory of a specific task, while in other instances, it led to the initiation of fresh projects and opportunities. Research revealed that its core must revolve around value creation for such restructuring to succeed.


Elaboration: Value creation manifests through the advantages we can confer upon others. Objectives can encounter two pitfalls: 1) an excessive focus on inputs rather than outputs and 2) an internal orientation rather than an external one. The study further unveiled that the acceptance and effectiveness of this approach depended on the willingness of both managers and employees (yes, employees also have influence). This was held for both experienced professionals and newcomers. While the degree of adaptability to change varies across professions and occupations, it needs to be more categorically assertable that there are domains where adaptability is unattainable.



  • When outlining an activity, begin not with goals but with an initial exploration of potential value, then shape your plans accordingly.

  • Value creation revolves around outputs that benefit others significantly, achieved with efficiency and a high standard.

  • Explore avenues for value creation that encompass both the subject matter of your profession and your methodologies.

  • Identify organizational or unit pain points as fertile ground for generating value.

  • Questions, even those that are basic can unearth latent value.



Coaching is often praised as a powerful tool for advancement, but its effectiveness primarily arises from intentionality and deriving insights rather than mere repetition. However, relying solely on deliberate practice, a concept well-established in the literature must be revised. Drawing from the study's findings, the author proposes implementing a 'learning loop.' This learning cycle comprises four phases: 1) execution, 2) assessment, 3) feedback, 4) adaptation ... And subsequently, the cycle restarts.



  • Devote a few minutes each day to learning. Reflect on today's or yesterday's accomplishments and consider ways to enhance them.

  • Cultivate learning opportunities during team meetings. Encourage brainstorming. Pose open-ended questions that demand thoughtful consideration, free from predefined answers.

  • Emphasize the quality of the learning cycle over its frequency. If needed, reduce its frequency to achieve greater effectiveness. During each iteration, concentrate on a specific area of learning.

  • Consistently question yourself – Which learning endeavor yields the most significant value? Avoid pursuing studies haphazardly; instead, tailor them to specific needs.

  • For aspirations involving behavioral refinement, break them into sub-behaviors. Focus on honing a skill relevant to a single subset, reserving the incorporation of additional facets for subsequent endeavors.

  • Avoid an exhaustive pursuit or simplistic metrics when selecting metrics to measure learning effectiveness. Instead, deliberate on the two metrics that will best support learning.

  • Feedback enhances quantified measurements, adding depth to numerical figures. It also contributes to learning advancement.

  • Challenge conventional boundaries; delve into intricate and challenging scenarios. Although they might briefly hinder performance, they foster learning, comprehension, professionalism, and excellence. If uneasy about risks, start with modest endeavors.

  • Step out of your comfort zone! Achieve this by disrupting automatic routines.



Balancing Passion and Discipline

On many occasions, we are advised to follow our hearts. This sentiment holds a captivating allure, evoking feelings of beauty and romance. However, such advice only sometimes leads us toward excellence or success in our professional pursuits. According to research-driven guidance, a more intricate approach is necessary: intertwining passion with purpose.


Elaboration: Passion encapsulates the invigorating emotions derived from our actions; it's the source of excitement and enthusiasm. On the other hand, purpose involves providing valuable contributions to others – whether it's an individual, an organization, or society. Passion resonates with what I value and receive from the world, while purpose bestows something I can offer to the world. The study involving 5,000 individuals revealed that those who combined passion with sense worked approximately 50 hours per week (compared to around 43 hours worked by others). Beyond that, this fusion led to a commendable performance. The rationale? The study's author attributes this outcome to the focused energy that fosters more astute efforts, consequently leading to success. This hypothesis was validated in a supplementary examination.



  • Every profession and occupation holds untapped opportunities for uncovering purpose. Strive to discover these within yourself.

  • Seek to find both passion and purpose in your pursuits. Attempt to reshape your role, allowing meaning to encompass endeavors you're passionate about. If this attempt falters, consider exploring an alternate role within the organization before seeking opportunities elsewhere.

  • Expand the sphere of passion within yourself and among colleagues. This involves finding joy in tasks, relishing the satisfaction of accomplishments, deriving fulfillment from addressing others' needs, enjoying camaraderie with coworkers, taking pleasure in learning and growth, and feeling accomplished in executing tasks precisely.

  • Ascend the hierarchy of purpose: progressing from delivering incremental value, discovering personal meaning in tasks >> contributing to a broader human societal objective.


Optimizing Collaboration with Peers


Navigating Conventions

The book's author refrains from using the conventional term 'leaders.' Instead, an alternative phrase, 'forceful champions,' is employed. As I interpret it, this term refers to individuals who effectively take the lead in collaborative endeavors. As a result, the chapter title was modified (M.L.).


The study involving 5,000 participants reveals that exceptional employees demonstrated proficiency in two core competencies:

1. Stirring inspiration in others by eliciting emotions

2. Skilfully navigating objections from others


The ability to inspire others by eliciting emotions involves enhancing negative sentiments associated with the current state and amplifying positive feelings about a potential future:

1. Negative emotions in the present situation encompass fear, anger, frustration, resentment, and anxiety.

2. Desirable positive emotions aligned with the future include excitement, joy, passion, enthusiasm, and delight.


Smartly addressing objections revolves around adopting others' perspectives, thereby identifying routes for compromise.



·  Instill inspiration in others by infusing endeavors with significance.

·  Use tools that facilitate objection management:

o   Cognitive empathy, as opposed to an emotional form that might be perceived as pity or insincerity.

o   Offering minor concessions where feasible.

o   Identifying opportunities to transform adversaries into collaborators, even if partially.

o   Mobilizing third parties to influence opponents.


Constructive Arguments and Consensus

Exemplary employees don't solely pursue unanimous agreement; instead, they strive to foster dialogues that lead to robust debates and even disagreements, challenging their viewpoints. This practice acts as a conduit for their growth and improvement. It's important to note that these debates should be conducted within a framework of positivity and constructive engagement, always maintaining courtesy and mutual respect. The value of such arguments goes beyond the discussions themselves. True success lies in the aftermath of a decision, where collective alignment emerges, even without a universal agreement. This alignment isn't limited to a mere verbal accord; it extends to tangible actions that implement the decision, embodying the commitment of all involved.



·  To cultivate constructive debates, encourage discourse, explore alternate perspectives, engage in mutual challenges, listen to minority viewpoints, critically evaluate underlying assumptions, and create an environment where everyone can openly voice their opinions without fear.

·  Ensure diverse representation of backgrounds and opinions within discussions.

·  Foster an environment conducive to candid discourse and expressed viewpoints. Encourage even the more reserved members to share their thoughts.

·  Empower yourself to listen to others actively. Focus your attention and maintain eye contact.

·  Go beyond preparing for alternative viewpoints; provide factual data and ask open-ended questions during discussions to nurture diverse thinking.

·  Be cautious of avoiding blame or vilification after a decision. When uniting behind a decision, do so with genuine commitment.

·  To elicit genuine dedication from each participant after a decision, ensure an 'organizational justice' process is present during the decision-making journey, giving every individual a chance to voice their perspectives.

·  Amplify constructive discourse and subsequent consensus by rallying around collectively refined team objectives.


Purposeful Collaborations

We have become accustomed to the idea that collaborations inherently result in positivity. However, findings from a study involving 5,000 participants highlight a more nuanced reality: Collaborations sometimes follow a different trajectory. There are instances where a lack of cooperation is detrimental, yet paradoxically, an excess of collaboration does not necessarily lead to excellence. This is why Hansen emphasizes the concept of disciplined collaborations – appropriate and advantageous collaborations. He outlines five principles for implementing such collaborations:


1. Preliminary Assessment: Before engaging in collaboration, examining whether the intended cooperation genuinely holds the potential to generate value is crucial. This assessment involves weighing the anticipated value against the associated cost of collaboration, considering resource consumption. Collaboration should only proceed if it promises to be worthwhile.

2. Common Objective: The collaborating team must establish a shared goal beyond individual pursuits.

3. Aligned Rewards: The incentives linked to cooperation should align with the achieved outcomes rather than being solely based on the act of collaboration itself.

4. Comprehensive Resource Allocation: Allocate all the necessary resources essential for effective collaboration.

5. Cultivation of Trust: Invest effort in nurturing trust within the team. With a foundation of trust, cooperation is likely to yield productive results.


Extending Well-Being Beyond Work

An intriguing question stemming from the study is whether excelling in the workplace translates to personal well-being beyond work. The key finding indicates that employees who utilize the tools above and are considered exceptional experience less stress, more excellent equilibrium, and heightened job satisfaction. However, delving into a closer examination of these tools reveals a more intricate narrative (as is often the case with life):


1. Extending working hours to reach the 50-65 hour threshold negatively impacts personal quality of life. Staying within a 50-hour timeframe, aligning with the recommended approach, carries no adverse consequences.

2. While beneficial for work, passion and meaning can infringe upon personal life and relationships due to their potential to absorb the individual in their job to the detriment of their home and family. Moreover, when these two aspects – excessive hours and heightened passion – coincide, personal quality of life can be significantly compromised.

3. The two most powerful drivers of a positive impact on personal well-being are: a) adopting a strategy of working fewer hours (around 50 hours per week) while working intelligently and b) engaging in purposeful collaborations, as these contribute to enhancing and nurturing personal quality of life.


Mitigating Burnout:

•   The most influential factor is adopting a strategy of intelligent and focused work.

•   Supporting factors include collaborations driven by passion and meaning.

•   Contributing factors encompass workplace discussions and adhering to a workweek of 50-65 hours (especially if staying within this range).


Job Satisfaction:

•   Leading the way is crucial in pursuing intelligent and focused work.

•   Supporting elements include work redesign, effective leadership, and purposeful collaborations.


As a result, the book concludes with the following recommendations:

•   Working smart results in time savings. Allocate some of these saved hours to revisit crucial matters. Dedicate around 50 hours per week to work and no more. Allocate the remaining time to self-care, home life, relationships, and family.

•   Be mindful of preventing passion from overwhelming and becoming all-consuming. Embrace gradual changes. This approach is the path to success :-)


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