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5 key actions good employees take to create great work


by David Sturt

Truly great work produces an outcome that makes a difference. It’s work that moves results from good to great—for example, improving a process, saving a customer or increasing revenues.

Truly great work is produced by people who routinely do the same five things, which were revealed during an analysis of 1.7 million O.C. Tanner records of work for which employees won awards, plus survey results and more than 200 one-on-one interviews. We evaluated perspectives of the bosses whose employees did great work, the recipients of the work and the employees who produced it. Those who do great work:

1. Ask the right question

Great workers challenge the status quo and bring fresh thinking. We interviewed a Motorola engineer who, dur­­ing the early 1970s, was tasked with improving a car phone. Instead of simply adding bells and whistles to the clunky radio version, he started asking questions: “Why is it that when I want to reach someone by phone, I have to call a place, like a building, a house, an office or a car? Why not create a phone that allows us to call a person instead of a place?” That employee, Martin Cooper, was the father of the cell phone.

Upshot: Employees who do great work ask: What difference could we make that people would love?

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2. See for themselves

Employees who do great work spend time, in person, examining and understanding the process in question, how it works, what it’s missing and how any improvements will be used.

Looking and seeing for yourself makes it hard to ignore obvious problems—a product that’s hard to use, for example, or a process that makes customers wait in long lines. It makes clear the scope, severity or impact of a problem. That can ignite a desire to solve it and to bring out our best creative energy.

Tip: Encourage employees to get away from their desks more often to witness, in person, the situation they are tasked with improving.

3. Talk outside an inner circle

Everyone has a small inner circle of trusted people they talk to every day. Our research found that employees who do great things get a fresh perspective by talking with people outside that circle. That, in turn, sparked the desire and inspiration to make a difference.

Tip: When employees seem stuck, ask: Who have you talked to about this? Send them outside of their comfort zone to engage in conversations that will help them get a complete picture of the situation.

4. Improve ‘the mix’

This means making simple upgrades to an existing product or process that results in a huge improvement. Example: Adding wheels to a suitcase. A small change but resulted in an enormous convenience to travelers—and a whole new kind of product to offer.

When we compared “before” products or processes with the “after” versions, we found that most big improvements came from small but valuable physical changes. Someone simply added or removed something.

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5. Deliver a difference

Employees who do great work focus on the outcome of their effort. They believe the job isn’t finished until they have created a difference that will positively affect the end user. People who are satisfied with merely good work tend to stop when they think the job is done, even if they haven’t made a difference.

Employees who do great work see it through, test it and witness the difference their work has produced.

These are simple things that anyone can do. Encour­­age your organization’s managers to coach their teams to incorporate these best practices into how they approach every task.


David Sturt is an executive vice president of O.C. Tanner, which creates rewards and recognition programs for busi­­nesses. Sturt is the author of Great Work: How To Make a Difference People Love (2013, McGraw-Hill Pro­­fes­­sional). Connect with him on Twitter via @david_sturt.