logo 12min

Start growing!

Boost your life and career with the best book summaries.

Start growing!

Boost your life and career with the best book summaries.

logo 12min

Great at Work Summary

9 min read ⌚ 

Great at Work PDF

How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More

Adam Grant dubbed this book “the definitive guide to working smarter.”

Bearing in mind that its author is Morten T. Hansen, we would have agreed with him even without having read it.

But, please, be our guests and find out why by reading through this summary.

Morten T. Hansen teaches you how to be:

Great at Work.

Who Should Read “Great at Work”? And Why?

A management professor at the University of California, Morten T. Hansen is probably best known as the co-author (with the ever-great Jim Collins) of Great by Choice, widely considered one of the greatest books on how to build a successful company in a dynamic, unpredictable and tumultuous age such as the 21st century.

Great at Work is a sort of a sequel to Great by Choice (which was, in turn, a sequel to Good to Great), translating some of its advices in the language of individual performance and personal excellence.

Once again based on an extensive study, Great at Work is nothing short of a “groundbreaking book” and should be read by anyone interested in becoming a better performer at work.

Even more: we strongly encourage everyone to implement Hansen’s seven “Work Smarter” practices in his work career and life.

That’s one decision you’ll never regret.

About Morten T. Hansen

Morten T. Hansen

Morten T. Hansen is a Norwegian-American management theorist and management professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

After obtaining an MSc in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics, Hansen won a Fulbright Scholarship and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Business Administration at Stanford University.

At Stanford, Hansen also received the Jaedicke award for outstanding academic performance, one of the seven he has so far received for his scholarly research, the most prestigious among them perhaps the 2005 Administrative Science Quarterly award and the 2005 Sloan Management Review/Pricewaterhouse Coopers Award.

Ranked by Thinkers50 among the 50 most influential management thinkers today, Hansen has so far authored two books (Collaboration and Great at Work) and co-authored one with Jim Collins (Great by Choice).

To find out more, visit www.mortenhansen.com.

“Great at Work PDF Summary”

One: The Secrets to Great Performance

Morten Hansen is not only a co-author of Great by Choice but also sort of a protégé of Jim Collins; so, no surprises when it comes to the methodology behind this book: Great at Work tries to give a simple answer to a complicated question via an extensive, wide-ranging study.

The question:

Why do some people perform great at work while others don’t?

The study:

200 published academic articles; in-depth interviews with 120 professionals and a survey study of 5,000 managers and employees, representing 15 industry sectors and 22 job functions.

The results:

The difference between the superstars and their peers are seven “work smart” practices:

1. Work scope practice: “select a tiny set of priorities and make huge efforts in those chosen areas;”
2. Targeting: “focus on creating value, not just reaching preset goals;”
3. Quality learning: “eschew mindless repetition in favor of better skills practice;”
4. Inner motivation: “seek roles that match your passion with a strong sense of purpose;”
5. Advocacy: “shrewdly deploy influence tactics to gain the support of others;”
6. Rigorous teamwork: “cut back on wasteful team meetings, and make sure that the ones you do attend spark vigorous debate;”
7. Disciplined collaboration: “carefully pick which cross-unit projects to get involved in, and say no to less productive ones.”

The first four practices relate to mastering your own work; the latter three to mastering working with others.

Hansen explains each of them in the rest of the book.

Part I: Mastering Your Own Work

Two: Do Less, Then Obsess

The “Work Harder” Convention

“The conventional wisdom,” reminds us Hansen, “states that people who work harder and take on more responsibilities accomplish more and perform better.”

The data, however, doesn’t support this view:

Great at Work PDF
The New “Work Smarter” Perspective

As you can see from the table above, managers who “do less, then obsess” perform a whopping 25 percentage points (on average) better than those who perform more, and then stress.

According to Hansen, because of this, this strategy is the most potent practice among the seven discussed in the book.

The Key Points

The problem is that doing more results in two traps:

• The spread-too-thin trap, aka taking on many tasks and being unable to allocate enough attention to each;
• The complexity trap, “the energy required to manage the interrelationship between tasks leads people to waste time and execute poorly.”

If you want to implement the “do less, then obsess” strategy in practice, then use these three ways:

Wield the razor: shave away unnecessary tasks and focus on the remaining ones;
Tie yourself to the mast: set clear rules beforehand which will ensure that you’ll never procrastinate (e.g., don’t allow yourself to check your email for certain periods of time);
Say ‘no’ to your boss: put limits; when your to-do list looks too much, it probably is; explain to your boss that accepting any other assignment will affect your performance; he/she will understand.

Three:  Redesign Your Work

The “Work Harder” Convention

The more hours you work, the better you perform.

The New “Work Smarter” Perspective

50 hours a week is just enough; counterintuitively, anything more will impede progress and performance; so, redesign your work.

The Key Points

You should rarely work more than 50 hours a week, aka about 8 hours for 6 days; according to Hansen’s study, sometimes, working up to 65 hours has some benefits, but just slight; working more than 65 hours is actually detrimental.

Instead of extending your workday, it’s much better to redesign it.

There are five ways you can do this:

• Less fluff: get rid of activities of little value;
• More right stuff: increase activities of high value;
• More “Gee, whiz”: create new activities of this latter kind;
• Five-star rating: improve quality;
• Faster, cheaper: do some activities more efficiently.

Four: Don’t Just Learn, Loop

The “Work Harder” Convention

As Malcolm Gladwell taught us in Outliers, 10,000 hours of practice is all you need to master a particular discipline; repetition is the mother of learning – says John Medina’s brain rule #5.

The New “Work Smarter” Perspective

Hansen’s conclusion:

The secret isn’t repetition. The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill is misleading. One year of practice repeated in the same way for ten years doesn’t make perfect. Rather, a certain kind of practice makes perfect.

In other words, it’s not the number of hours that matters; it’s the quality of practice; it’s not how many, but merely how.

The Key Points

Instead of the 10,000-hour rule, adhere to the Learning Loop rule; namely, focus on the quality of iterations and not the sheer number of them.

This is how the basic steps in a Learning Loop look like:

Great at Work Summary

The reason why people believe that repetition is the mother of learning is that most of the studies in deliberate practice have treated areas such as music, chess, sports – all of them memory-related.

It’s different in the business world.

Hansen suggests six tactics to implement the learning loop in your job:

• Carve out just 15: every single day, spend 15 minutes to better one of your skills;
• Chunk it: break your desired skill into daily micro-behaviors;
• Measure the “soft”: trace the micro-behaviors;
• Get nimble feedback, fast: solicit brief, informal feedback from your peers;
• Dig the dip: conduct small experiments;
• Confront the stall point: de-automate your routines.

Five: P-Squared (Passion and Purpose)

The “Work Harder” Convention

They say that if you do what you love, success will inevitably come your way.

The New “Work Smarter” Perspective

Passion is not enough; you need to match it with a strong sense of purpose; hence the P-squared.

The Key Points

Many people are passionate about what they do; the ones who excel among them excel because they attach a much nobler purpose to their passion.

If you do not feel that you’ve achieved this, you can expand your passion and sense of purpose via these three tactics:

• Discover a new role. You don’t need to find another job; you can expand your passion and purpose just by finding a different role in your existing company;

• Expand the circle of passion. Passion is the result of several factors – not just taking pleasure in the work; it can also come from your success, social interactions, learning, competence, and creativity. “Expand your circle of passion by tapping into these dimensions,” says Hansen.

Climb the Purpose Pyramid.
  ○ Add more value to your activities;
  ○ Pursue personally meaningful activities, regardless of other people’s opinion;
  ○ Pursue activities which have a clear and sound social mission.

Part II: Mastering Working with Others

Six: Forceful Champions

The “Work Harder” Convention

Just argue rationally for your ideas, explain the wonderful merits of your case, and you’ll undoubtedly overcome all the opposition to your work efforts.

The New “Work Smarter” Perspective

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,” wrote once Maya Angelou, “people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Well, Hansen’s study vindicates Angelou: the best performers deploy the inspire+grit maneuver, evoking emotions in individuals whose support they need and tailoring tactics in the face of opposition.

The Key Points

Forceful champions inspire others in one of these three ways:

• They make them excited for tomorrow and angry about today;
• They use striking photos: they show and don’t tell;
• They make people feel resolute, connecting their day-to-day activities to a grander purpose.

In addition, forceful champions display smart grit in at least one of these five ways:

• They stand in the shoes of their opponents;
• They confront them when necessary;
• They make concessions they can live with to appease their opponents;
• They co-opt opponents;
• They mobilize people (see above) to advocate on their behalf.

Seven: Fight and Unite

The “Work Harder” Convention

Meeting fights and disagreements bring about discord which spills over other meetings; that’s why fights should be avoided, and only the best and the brightest should be heard.

The New “Work Smarter” Perspective

Fights are a necessary product of good team debate; follow-up meetings are unnecessary when you fight and unite well enough.

The Key Points

To have a productive fight during a meeting, use one of these five strategies:

• Maximize diversity, not talent
• Make it safe to speak up
• Prod the quiet to speak
• Show up as an advocate, not a salesperson
• Ask nonleading questions.

To improve the unity at the end, try the following:

• Ensure everyone has a voice (being heard creates buy-in)
• Commit, especially when you utterly disagree
• Confront the prima donna
• Sharpen the team goal
• Stop playing office politics and get behind decisions.

Eight: The Two Sins of Collaboration

The “Work Harder” Convention

The more collaboration, the better.

The New “Work Smarter” Perspective


Overcollaboration is as bad as undercollaboration. Busting silos is not the answer. A different tack—disciplined collaboration—helps you collaborate effectively and perform.

The Key Points

Both overcollaboration and undercollaboration are detrimental to success; to achieve balance, you need disciplined collaboration.

It consists of the following five rules:

• If a collaboration initiative seems questionable, say no; if not – say yes;
• Craft a unifying goal for everybody;
• Reward the collaborating people only for the results – not for the activities;
• Commit everything to the collaboration; if you can’t – then kill it;
• Tailor trust boosters to specific trust problems in the relationship.

Part III: Mastering Your Work-Life

Nine: Great at Work… and at Life, Too

We’ll try to summarize this chapter in three charts, each answering the three questions Hansen posits here.

How Do You Really Get Better Work-Life Balance?
Great at Work

As you can see, even p-squared worsens work-life balance (by about 4%), and “do less, then obsess” improves it the most (by 26%).

How Do You Prevent Burning Out?
Great at Work Review

Once again, do less, then obsess is the best strategy to go!

How Do You Enhance Your Job Satisfaction?
Great at Work PDF Download

All “smart work” practices improve job satisfaction; unsurprisingly, p-squared the most.


Morten T. Hansen conclusion is pretty straightforward: anyone can become a top performer.

True, effort, talent, and luck all play their parts, but these seven practices statistically have played a more important part than anything else.

In fact, that’s the very first graph in this book, but we decided to put it here so that you understand the importance of these seven practices better:

Great at Work PDF Summary

Any questions?

Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.

“Great at Work Quotes”

Whatever you are, be out and out, not partial or in doubt. (Via Henrik Ibsen) Click To Tweet Maybe if we reinvent whatever our lives give us we find poems. (Via Naomi Shihab Nye) Click To Tweet The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow. (Via William Pollard) Click To Tweet What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead. (Via Nelson Mandela) Click To Tweet Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. (Kenyan Proverb) Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

Jim Collins says that “Morten Hansen delivers on the genius of and: rigorous and relevant, research-driven and well-written, empirical and empowering, timeless and practical, full of big concepts and useful tips. Hansen’s work is truly distinctive in the genre of professional effectiveness, and a tremendous contribution. This is a book I will read more than once, and reference forever.”

Named by The Washington Post as one of the “11 Leadership Books to Read in 2018” even before it had been published, Great at Work is undoubtedly destined to be included in similar lists in the future.At least we should have no second thoughts including it one of our future “best leadership books” lists; in fact, we’re kinda sad that we happened upon it a bit too late to include it in the one linked in this sentence.

logo 12min

Improve Your Reading Habits in 28 days

Explore key insights and ideas from 2500+ titles in audio and text

logo 12min

Improve Your Reading Habits in 28 days

Explore key insights and ideas from 2500+ titles in audio and text

Scroll to Top