How Top Performers Achieve More and Stay Happy | Greater Good Magazine

At times, being happy and performing well at work can feel like conflicting goals. We want to prepare a good presentation, but we also want to make it home for dinner with our partner. We want to get promoted, but we don’t necessarily want the stress that comes with more responsibility.

Where do these two goals overlap?

In a massive research project catalogued in his new book Great at Work, UC Berkeley professor Morten Hansen set out to determine—once and for all, amid all the conflicting advice—what makes people successful at work. Along the way, he discovered that many of those same practices bring us happiness at work, too.

Based on a study of nearly 5,000 managers and employees in the United States, Hansen uncovered five strategies that were linked to both performance and well-being at work. Here are the strategies he recommends and the ways you can start to put them into practice.

1. Do less, then obsess

The most impactful thing we can do to boost our performance, Hansen found, is also linked to better work-life balance and less burnout: intensely focusing on few tasks.

Hansen calls this “do less, then obsess”: taking on fewer responsibilities but giving them more of our energy. This allows for higher-quality work, since we aren’t overwhelmed by constant multitasking.

To do this, he suggests looking at your work life with an eye toward elimination: What goals, tasks, clients, procedures, meetings, or emails can you do without? That might mean saying no when colleagues make requests, in order to say a resounding yes to your priorities.

I unknowingly put this strategy into practice recently: After a year at my job, I felt pulled in too many directions: not only writing and editing, but also working on our online courseonline gratitude journalGreater Good in Action, and more. After shifting some of those responsibilities, I now have more time for the tasks still on my plate—and I feel a bit saner.

2. Focus on value

If we’re doing less, which tasks should we focus on? According to Hansen’s survey, the people who are more productive and more satisfied with their jobs align themselves with a particular North Star: value.

These people prioritize work that they can do well, efficiently, and with great benefit to others. They seek out new projects and new processes with these ends in mind.

To maximize value, for example, some teachers ask students to watch lectures at home—and then use precious one-on-one time to answer questions, explain difficult concepts, and help with issues. Some progressive workplaces have embraced “stand-up” meetings—where, as the name implies, no one sits down. These meetings are 34 percent shorter but no less effective—a small innovation with big-value results.

Focusing on value might seem obvious; but it’s not the way many of us prioritize our work. Instead, we do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done, or we measure the quantity of our output rather than the quality we’re offering to others. Shifting our priorities requires a bit of a skeptical spirit—and a willingness to let some of those “urgent” emails slide in favor of more important things.

3. Collaborate consciously

Not all collaboration is created equal, Hansen found. Employees tended to perform better—and have better work-life balance, less burnout, and higher job satisfaction—if they collaborated with colleagues in a disciplined way.

What does that mean? The happiest high performers tended to engage in collaboration only when it made good business sense and when working together was a benefit rather than a hassle. When they did collaborate, they made sure everyone was on board and motivated to work toward a common goal.

To put this into practice, Hansen recommends questioning why a particular collaboration is needed by asking yourself: Why should we work together on this project? Is outside expertise really helpful here? Also, beware of under-collaboration, where different teams have useful expertise, experiences, or resources that they fail to share with each other.

4. Be a forceful champion

To change your job, launch new projects, or recruit a collaborator, you might have to do some persuading. Perhaps that’s why “forceful champions”—people skilled at gaining support for their goals—are more productive and more satisfied with their jobs.

One of the forceful champions that Hansen encountered in his study saw an amazing market opportunity for his chemical company. But leadership wasn’t on board, and he knew his proposal would fail. So, instead, he crafted a fake news announcement showing their competitors beating them to market, and emailed it to the executive team.

He took a risk, applying the two strengths of forceful champions—using emotions to persuade others and persisting thoughtfully in the face of resistance. And his superiors eventually signed off on his idea.

This is an extreme example, and it may not be something you want to try at your own workplace. Other research suggests that when we’re trying to inspire others to act, we’re better off evoking positive emotions than negative ones. The larger message is that success requires the support of others, and the best way to garner that support is to speak to people’s values, interests, and motivations.

5. Combine passion and purpose

To fuel all these efforts—their collaboration, obsession, and advocacy—Hansen found that high performers weren’t just driven by passion. They combined it with a sense of purpose, which kept them satisfied at work and prevented burnout.

Although passion and purpose sound like similar concepts, it’s possible to have one without the other. Passion refers to our excited energy or quiet enthusiasm for work, while purpose refers to making a meaningful contribution to others.

We can find passion in different aspects of work, such as being creative, learning and growing, using our strengths, and socializing with colleagues. To cultivate purpose, we must link what we do every day to something broader: to upholding our values or making people’s lives better.

Although employees who combine passion and purpose are happier in some respects, Hansen’s survey found, they do tend to have worse work-life balance—not because they’re working crazy hours, but because work probably occupies their psyche all the time. Hansen’s recommendation is to practice detaching from work, so passion enriches your life rather than taking it over.

As with passion and purpose, not all performance-boosting strategies are unequivocally good for our happiness. In fact, Hansen outlines two other strategies in the book that either don’t seem linked to well-being or may actively undermine it. In particular, he found that the best decision-making strategy—“fight and unite,” where vigorous debate and idea-questioning give way to committed consensus—is linked to more burnout at work, perhaps because disagreeing is so unpleasant.

It’s easy to outline these best practices but, of course, harder to implement them when Monday morning rolls around. Hansen’s suggestion? Pick one, try it out, and see how you feel. Maybe this week you’ll experiment with spending less time on email, recruiting a collaborator for your biggest project, or tracking different metrics.

That call for experimentation—more than any of the specific tips or habits he suggests—may be the best advice in the book.

–  Kira M. Newman
from Greater Good Magazine