Ten years ago the Wharton School of Business named Andy Grove the most influential CEO of the previous 25 years. Yale’s Jeffrey Garten called him a “superb model for future generations of CEOs.” Beyond his obvious success at Intel, why the accolades? Harvard’s Richard Tedlow answered the question best: “Grove has escaped natural selection by doing the evolving himself. Forcibly adapting himself to a succession of new realities, he has left a trail of discarded assumptions in his wake. “
Discarding assumptions can be very wise. Business proverbs, those single phrase assumptions, often need to be dumped too. Although I occasionally hear it today, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was a mantra in most exec suites 20 years ago. The execs who didn’t break a significant number of their ideas and processes are on the streets today. “Keep it simple stupid (KISS)” is another one that still floats around. It’s being challenged by a chaotic, highly complex global economy.
Thus far, no one seems to be challenging “Work smarter, not harder.” It, too, is filled with a significant amount of baloney.
In 2014, it’s only half right—at best!
I first encountered the proverb ...
The proverb may have first appeared in a 1962 business book by Alan Lakein, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. It was the title of a 1988 business book by Jack Collins and Michael Leboeuf: Work Smarter, Not Harder: How to Unlock Your Real Potential. The books are out of print, but the proverb is all over the web, emphasizing its staying power. The examples are endless, but here are three: 5 scientifically proven ways to work smarter, not harder (Jeff Haden); 17 great tips for working smarter not harder (Dan Pink); and Work Smarter Not Harder With These Four Simple Lifestyle Changes (Forbes’ Amy Morin).
But if you’re a close reader of these examples, you should recognize that you’re getting the public relations shaft. The articles are focused on working smarter. They don’t say you no longer need to work harder. Today’s reality is that the global economy places terrific demands on your talents and abilities. And research is demonstrating more and more that the one thing that sets successful people apart from the rest of the herd is how hard they work to make themselves smarter and build their expertise.
What’s the psych background?
If you have background in advertising or marketing—or Freudian psychology—you know that the proverb works because it is highly reflective of the pleasure principle. Sigmund Freud believed that humans are driven to avoid pain and seek pleasure. He argued that self-gratification is a fundamental part of our personality, and that it enables us to get our basic needs met. When a child is hungry, and wants food, the child cries to get his needs met. When the child needs to be changed, she cries to get those needs met. And so, when we are uncomfortable, in pain, or just want attention, the drive for pleasure causes us to speak up until our needs are met. In business the proverb implies that if you’re working too hard, you can avoid some of the pain by working smarter.
Over the years, the proverb has continued to resurface, based on the inherent embedded values of the pleasure principle. “We offer you a product (or service) that will satisfy you with little pain or sacrifice.” The diet and fitness ads are full of those motives. Our American vocabulary is loaded with ways to avoid pain, learn instantaneously and avoid work.
Few seem to realize that the pleasure principle is under attack on a lot of fronts—and rightly so. Freud said that the opposite of the pleasure principle was the reality principle.
A proverb that’s not so smart
We have no research to support the notion that if you work smarter you won’t have to work harder. Furthermore, the proverb, as stated, would be very difficult to prove. What’s going on instead is the halo effect. It’s a great term and I use it regularly. The most basic way to think about the halo effect is that’s it just a “general impression.” It’s our natural human tendency to draw conclusions based on cues that we think are reliable. Because business people are so very concerned about performance—and the profit it can bring in—we tend to draw conclusions based on most any data about performance that we believe are reliable.
All that, of course, lays out two problems. What data is really reliable? And how accurate are the conclusions we draw from “reliable data?” Any student with graduate work in statistics will tell you that you’re in a helluva difficult situation even thinking about those two questions, much less making decisions about them. The real trick of course is to just go ahead like you know the answers and when you’ve finished your work, come back and think about it.
What to do?
Though Phil Rosenzweig writes about business execution in his book, The Halo Effect, much of what he says applies to careers.
- Any good career strategy involves risk. If you think your strategy is foolproof, the fool may well be you.
- Career execution is uncertain—what works for one person in one situation may have different results elsewhere.
- Chance plays a bigger role than you think, or than successful folk like to admit.
- Good decisions don’t always lead to favorable results. And unfavorable results are not always the consequence of bad decisions.
- But once you’ve made up your career mind, remember this: the best folk act as if chance is irrelevant—persistence and tenacity are everything.