To Be Happier at Work, Work Smarter, Not Harder

Author Morten T. Hansen says the secret to increased performance and happiness at work is cutting back, not giving more.

Morten T. Hansen
Photo courtesy of Terry Husebye

In a workplace flooded with demands, it can be hard to survive let alone thrive. It can feel like the only way to stay afloat is to pile on the hours and hope for the best. But what about those who clock stellar performance and still clock out at five? Why do some employees perform better than others?

Some may say it’s talent. Others might call it luck. But following a five-year study of nearly 5,000 managers and employees, management professor and author Morten T. Hansen believes he’s found an answer. His data suggests that seven key practices influence 66 percent of the differences in employee performance.

Hansen’s book, Great At Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More,” offers an overview of the study, as well as practical tips on how to achieve success at work without having to do it all. Chief Learning Officer spoke with Hansen about misconceptions, quality learning and how to achieve more by doing less.

Chief Learning Officer: What are the biggest assumptions we make about work?

Morten Hansen: That goes to the heart of what we mean by “working smarter.” That slogan has been thrown around so much that it’s an empty cliché, but who wants to do the opposite? Who wants to work dumb? I would say no one.

Top performers in our study were extremely selective in the kinds of activities that they chose and said no to other things. Then they went all in on those few things in order to excel. That approach — I call it “do less, then obsess” — needs to do both. That flies in the face of a lot of things happening today, which is what I call a “do more” idea of work. We believe that the more we do, the more effort we put in, the more we accomplish and therefore we perform better. The opposite is true.

We need to educate our people in that principle. We need to teach them how to be more selective, how to be able to say no in an appropriate manner, how to be able to obsess, how to emphasize quality over quantity. It’s a paradigm shift. And if we can train people in that way, we will actually get better performance in our company.

CLO: What are the biggest false assumptions we make about learning and why do you believe they’re wrong?

Hansen: For the most part today, it’s done in training and executive education. We go to offsites or we go to training programs for a day, two days, a week, whatever it is. It’s very episodic.

What we learned in this study is the way you develop, the way adults develop, is by learning on the job. It’s the old apprentice model, which is [when] you do something and a mentor or someone is observing you in the moment and they give you immediate feedback and correction, and you redo it slightly differently. How do we bring that into the workplace? It’s through this thing I call the learning loop, which is a basic learning model — you do something on your job, you get immediate feedback, you modify what you did and then you continue that loop in an upward trajectory. That’s what the top performers did.

I can give you a concrete example from the study to illustrate how powerful this is. So, we came across this person whose name is Brittany Gavin and she is a food manager in a large Scripps hospital in Southern California. She was asking her staff for ideas. She didn’t get very far; she wasn’t able to ask them good questions in their staff meetings.

She had the benefit of two coaches observing her, which is kind of a luxury not given to everyone. Her coach said, “You should ask the question differently.” So she went on this journey over 18 months of just learning how to solicit ideas from a team and implement them. As a result, the patient score of the quality of the food service in the hospital skyrocketed.

CLO: What are the three most important of your “Seven Smarter Work Practices”?

Hansen: The first one is this idea of doing less, then obsessing, as we talked about. That’s, in our data, the one that explains the biggest difference.

Then there is a second one, which is what I call P-squared. It’s a combination of passion and purpose. There’s this dictum out there in today’s workplace that you should follow your passion and that’s wrong. If we overemphasize passion, we tend to neglect the second part — purpose. Purpose means “do what contributes.” Purpose is about what you can give the world and what contributions you make to your company, to your department and to your customers. The greatest performers in our study had passion and purpose, the combination. If I can get more people to feel this combination, they will perform better and they will actually have lower burnout as well. And higher job satisfaction, in our data.

Then there is a third one, and that is what I called disciplined collaboration. Collaboration is the biggest buzzword today, and there’s the idea that more collaboration is better and that’s completely wrong. More is not better when it comes to collaboration. In many companies today we have over-collaboration — too many people collaborating on too many things and as a result they’re not effective. What we need to do is be much more disciplined about the few collaboration projects we take and then make sure those are fully resourced and staffed.

CLO: How can learning leaders better apply the “do less, then obsess” principle to their own workloads?

Hansen: That’s a great question because learning leaders are being asked to do many things. You’re asked to develop talent, you’re asked to put on training seminars, you’re asked to populate your online learning system with content, you have to do talent reviews, you’re asked to add skills workshops for this and that or the other.

So here is my advice there: Do a very rigorous audit. Go for quality rather than quantity of learning offerings. So, for example, what we have done is sat down with top management and said, “What are the leadership competencies required in this company for the next five to 10 years?” You make a list, and you make sure the list is not too long. You don’t take a, say, Lominger, which is an instrument that has maybe 65 or 68 leadership competencies. Because if you have 65, you’re not doing less, you’re doing more.

Let’s say you arrive at a list of 10. Then you say, “How do we create learning offerings and development offerings for those 10 only? And how do we make sure it is really high quality?” If there’s one thing about the learning community that I would criticize it’s that there’s a tendency to offer a lot of things that are not necessarily of the highest quality.

Start with a very small list and offer high quality and say no to the rest. You can’t do it all.

Mariel Tishma is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at