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I arrived at Navision, a Danish technology firm that specialized in CRM (Customer Relations Management), the week after a Senior VP from Microsoft had shown up for a visit. The year was 2002. Navision had just been acquired by Microsoft. The work force at Navision was overwhelmingly enthusiastic about joining this US giant. There was much good will toward Microsoft. Until Mister SVP gave a speech.

We love workers who are passionate about work, Mister SVP had said. We want folks who bring their passion to work.

Passion? My Danish colleagues were in an uproar. You Americans talk about passion, they told me, and what you really mean is attending endless meetings. You work extra hours every day and don’t get your work done. We show up, work hard, and at 5:30 sharp we go home to be with our families.

One word. Cultural differences. And many hidden beliefs and assumptions about what doing “good work” looks like.

I remember this visit as I contemplate the insights of Morten Hansen, a Professor of Management at the University of California in Berkeley. Hansen conducted a 5-year study of over 5000 Top Performers. Managers, Doctors, Sales Reps, Lawyers, Engineers, Nurses, Plant Foremen. Hansen’s major learning, as chronicled in his about to be released book “Great Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More” (Simon & Schuster) is this:

Top Performers work less hard and dig deeper into their tasks.

Yes, professional excellence begins with plain old talent. It doesn’t end with working longer hours.

Here are the 4 habits that top performers have in common:

  1. Choose simplicity over unnecessary complexity

Find the simplest way of performing any task or project you have in front of you. Simple means stripping it down to the essential and eliminating clutter and busy-work. Seek the fewest steps in a process, the fewest meetings, fewest metrics, fewer goals. Instead of crafting the 15-slide Powerpoint presentation, distill your message down to just a few slides. By distilling what you do, you drill down to the essentials. It’s quicker. And it accommodates complexity in a more effective way.

  1. Push back

When your boss piles on too much new work, push back. Instead of taking on more and more projects, ask your boss to help you reprioritize what’s on your plate. Data from Mr. Hansen’s study shows that folks with a “reprioritize focus” place an impressive 25% higher in performance rankings. Quite simply, they take on fewer projects, dig into them more deeply and do a better job with the work they fully commit to. Beware – do not become the person who constantly says no. A small task well-performed does not equate great job performance!

  1. Execute with an add-value mindset

It’s easy to slip into a volume mindset as we work. Success means the number of sales calls made, amount of patients seen, customers visited, hours logged in. Your work performance may, indeed, be measured by such metrics. But why not consider the following question as you perform every task in front of you: What value can I create? And how can I add the most value with the tasks I need to perform? As we approach every day with an add-value mindset, some tasks may suddenly fall by the wayside or become efforts that we delegate. Others are performed with a richer sense of purpose and intention. Success redefined.

  1. Redesign what you can

Top performers approach their work with an eye to continuous improvement. They maintain a strategic thinking approach to everything they do. Even when performing a routine task, they perform it well and contemplate ways of doing so more easily, more effectively, more effortlessly. They offer innovation, even in large bureaucracies where innovative thinking may not be a required success lever. They continuously transcend and transform behavior.

Not easy, perhaps. So many of us have internalized the belief that working harder is the path to success. But how liberating – and ultimately more satisfying – it is to know that working less hard, and diving more deeply into fewer projects, is the way we add more value.

So liberate yourself. Instantly feel more joyful about the work you do. How cool is that!

 

 

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