A professor tested whether cliché career advice actually works

Shoot for the stars.
Shoot for the stars.
Image: AP Photo/Nikolai Alexandrov
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We’ve all heard advice about how to perform better on the job. Follow your passion. Break down the silos. Think outside the box. Synergize. Move the needle. The customer is king. Network. Manage up. Empower others. A few years ago, I compiled a list of these clichés and wound up with over 100 pieces of advice, few backed up by any real data.

Since then, I’ve performed a quantitative study of the work practices and performance results of 5,000 workers and managers across a wide range of jobs and industries in corporate America. I developed and administered a lengthy survey instrument to gather data from managers and employees on work practices, and then I ran that data through numerous statistical analyses to measure the effects of various practices on individual job performance.

The results overturned a great deal of conventional wisdom about what to do to perform at your best. Here are three especially popular clichés about work that my statistical research soundly disproves.

Cliché #1: Strive for Consensus

When working on teams, people often aim to reach agreement at all costs. Unpleasant conflicts or tensions are counter-productive, they think, and the best performers at work know how to deftly avoid them.

Or do they? In seeking to achieve consensus, people risk killing off productive debate about substantive issues. Team members censor themselves, refraining from airing views that others might find provocative. At the extreme, we wind up with “group think” and an ethic of “going along to get along.”

Rather than seek consensus, high performers in my study did the opposite, embracing a practice I call “fight and unite.” They participated in or lead heated debates about the topic under discussion.

When teams generate a good fight in their meetings, team members debate the issues, consider alternatives, challenge one another, listen to minority views, scrutinize assumptions, and enable every participant to speak up without fear of retribution. They show up 100% prepared and argue strenuously for their positions, yet are willing to let the best arguments and ideas win. Above all, they avoid pursuing consensus for its own sake. 

All good fights must come to an end, and top performers in my study were equally good at uniting once they and their colleagues had sufficiently hashed through an issue. They committed to the decision, and they worked hard to implement it without second-guessing or undermining it. One participant in my study, an employee at a pharmaceutical company I’ll call Christine, lost a debate about whether to launch a new product. Once her colleagues decided to go ahead with the launch, she devoured product information, was the first to attend a training course, and called the company’s experts to learn all she could about the new product. She rallied behind the decision and did all she could to make it a success.

To perform at your best, don’t aim for consensus. Aim for a heck of a good debate, followed by real, unwavering commitment to the decision taken, even when you utterly disagree with it.

Cliché #2: The More Collaboration, the Better

Collaboration is one of today’s great workplace buzzwords. Leaders and managers have pushed for more interactions, committees, and joint task forces across units, seeking to break down the silos between units. Inevitably, the ideal of a boundary-less organization has trickled down to employees, leading to a pervasive belief that collaboration is like flossing our teeth: it’s a good thing, and more of it is even better. My research shows otherwise. As I found, people often over-collaborate, getting bogged down in too many unproductive interactions that suck up the team’s limited time and leave them feeling overwhelmed. Karen, a 31-year-old marketing analyst in my study, grumbled that, “people from other business units constantly ask me for help on trivial things, which prevents me from focusing on my task at hand.” That lack of focus in turn caused her to disappoint her bosses. 

Top performers in my study instead took a disciplined approach to collaboration, saying no to less attractive partnerships. Brenda, a saleswoman in a retail store, used to contact some of the other stores in her region to obtain sales advice about new products her company was launching. Over time, she realized that such consultations often weren’t worth the trouble. So, she came to say “no” more often when a member of her team suggested reaching out to the other sites. She didn’t isolate herself from her colleagues, but rather actively sought out information and expertise only when her team needed it. She had come to discern when to collaborate and when to decline. It was no accident that she ranked among the top 6 % of performers in our study.

To be disciplined about collaboration is to say “no” to the wrong opportunities, select those few that produce compelling value, and then go all in to make those a success.

Cliché #3: Follow Your Passion, and Success Will Come

Motivational speakers, self-help gurus, successful entrepreneurs, human resource executives, and branding experts have all talked up passion, so much that you might believe loving what you do is the only requirement to perform at your best. Influenced by this thinking, many of us let passion dictate our career choices, regardless of more pragmatic considerations. Everything will work out, we think, so long as we love what we’re doing. Sadly, it often doesn’t. As many a failed actor in Los Angeles will tell you, following your passion can lead to unemployment.

But what’s the alternative? Ignoring passion doesn’t sound like such a sound strategy, either. It entails plodding along, doing dull, empty work to earn a paycheck.

My research uncovered a third way, what I call “matching.” Some people pursue passion in navigating their careers, but they also manage to connect this passion with a clear sense of purpose on the job—they contribute, serve others, make a difference. They have matched passion with purpose. As my study found, people who matched passion with purpose ranked 18 percentage points higher in the performance ranking compared with those who had neither passion nor purpose. These matchers figured out how to make valuable contributions to others, including customers, co-workers, and their organization, and they also made sure they felt passionately about those activities. The combination of passion and purpose led them to put more energy into every hour they worked, lifting their performance.

Consensus, collaboration, and passion all sound desirable, but as approaches to work, they lead people astray. We need to look beyond buzzwords to the actual data, and embrace smarter, more nuanced ways of working: fighting and uniting, disciplined collaboration, and matching. As we do, our performance will improve in turn.

Morten T. Hansen is the author of Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More and a management professor at University of California, Berkeley.