Book Review: Great at Work

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I think we’ve all heard the advice that we should “Work smarter, not harder.” If you’re like me, you always wanted to shout back something like, “Okay! But how?” Time to relax. Morten Hansen wrote the book that we were asking for, even if we didn’t know it.

Here’s how he describes his reason for writing Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, And Achieve More.

“For all that has been written about performance, no book to my knowledge has presented an evidence-based, comprehensive understanding of what enables individuals to perform at the highest level at work. Great at Work fills this gap. It gives you a simple and practical framework that you can use to work at your best. Think of it as a complement to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, updated to reflect the realities of work today, and backed by an unprecedented statistical analysis.”

The book is based on a five-year study of thousands of managers, a review of the research literature, and in-depth interviews. It’s impressive, academically-rigorous, and well-presented.

The book is divided into three sections. Part one is about mastering your own work. Part two is about mastering work with others. And part three is about mastering your work-life. Here’s a little more detail on what you’ll find in the book.

In those three sections, Hansen identifies and describes seven of what he calls “work smarter” practices. He says that people who adopted those practices didn’t just improve their performance at work, they also improved their own wellbeing at work and everywhere else. Here’s the detail on those practices.

In section one on mastering your own work, there are four practices. “Do less than obsess” addresses the common idea that focus by itself will result in improved performance. Hansen points out that you must focus on the right stuff and then obsess about doing great work.

“Redesign your work” is about something compulsive work tinkerers (like me) love. I love experimenting with ways to do my work better. That usually results in lots of small changes, but occasionally, I’ve made a big adjustment that resulted in a big improvement. One such time is after I read The 4 Disciplines of Execution.

“Don’t just learn, loop” recognizes that most of our improvements are going to be like the ones I’ve experienced. They’ll be small improvements, but they’ll build on each other. Hansen describes a series of six looping tactics to help you get the job done.

“P-Squared (Passion and Purpose)” is about imagining what you’d do as working for more than just a paycheck. I like the fact that he is explicit about saying that purpose doesn’t have to be some giant, world-changing things, like helping feed starving children on the other side of the planet. In a half century in business, I’ve known a lot of people who found great purpose in working to help their company do better, and, even more, in contributing to their team.

Mastering working with others starts with what Hansen calls “forceful champions.” He shares the research on how you can champion your ideas forcefully and effectively.

“Fight and unite” is about recognizing that the most effective teams, whether in business, charities, or the military have passionate disagreement while they’re figuring out what to do and when, but then have everyone unite behind a decision, even if they lost the argument for their point.

Hansen labels his next practice “the two sins of collaboration.” He defines collaboration as working across boundaries. The two sins are collaborating too much and too little. Just knowing that would not be enough, though, Hansen goes on to define discipline collaboration and then gives us five rules for making it all work.

The final section, mastering your work-life, recounts Hansen’s exploration of whether there was a statistical link between adopting the seven practices to improve performance and enhanced wellbeing. He found that there are some practices which can lower some aspects of wellbeing. To counter that, he outlines three additional tactics that he promises will help you not only perform better at work, but also improve your life in other areas.

Hansen writes good, clean prose. He cites his sources and footnotes a lot of material. I like all of that. I also like one other thing that he does.

He’s one of the best authors I’ve seen at highlighting the things that he thinks are important. When I read them on my Kindle, I highlight his highlights in blue rather than the yellow I use for things that I find interesting and meaningful. You can see those highlights and my notes on my Goodreads page.

In A Nutshell

If you want to get better at work, whether by improving your own performance or improving the way you work with others, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, And Achieve More by Morten Hansen is a must-buy and a must-read and a must-apply. Before you begin reading, I suggest that you go through the book and note the things that Hansen has highlighted. That will give you a good overview that will make your reading more effective.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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