Making a Difference Is Key to Great Work

By Dori Meinert Oct 12, 2015

SAN ANTONIO—Many people aspire to do great things at work. But what does that mean? How do you make it happen?

Most organizations focus on doing “good” work, which usually is interpreted as “meeting expectations.” To be great, go beyond the expected to do something in a new and different way, best-selling author and employee engagement consultant David Sturt told attendees of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Emerging LEAD(HR) Conference on Oct. 9, 2015.

“Great work is the stuff that builds careers,” said Sturt, author of Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love (McGraw-Hill Education, 2013). “Anybody can step into a role and do the same thing that’s been done before.”

He studied 10,000 cases of award-winning work and interviewed more than 1,000 executives and employees to discover what sets those “difference-makers” apart.

“They see themselves as broader than just what their job descriptions are,” said Sturt, executive vice president for marketing at O.C. Tanner Institute in Salt Lake City.

He cited a University of Michigan study that found differences even among low-level employees such as hospital janitors. To some, it was just a job. But others believed that their work helped patients get better by killing germs.

“What’s the bigger purpose that we’re connected to that we can make a difference on in our organizations?” he asked.

If you think of yourself as a difference-maker as you step into a new role, rather than just an executor, “things come into your view that will allow you to make significant differences.”

Sturt said he was surprised that that difference-makers didn’t have huge budgets to achieve change in their organizations. In fact, the lack of resources forced them to be creative.

“It was necessity, not the abundance of resources, that led to some improvement,” he said.

His research identified five actions or behaviors that difference-makers have in common, which others can emulate. They are:

Ask the right questions. Albert Einstein once said that if he had just one hour to solve a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes of it determining the right question, Sturt noted. “Questions are incredibly powerful little tools,” he said. Motorola’s Marty Cooper would never have invented the cellphone if he hadn’t first asked himself why a phone had to be stationary.

See for yourself. To spur new ideas, you have to get away from your desk and observe people. What are their problems? What do they need? “You are 17 times more likely to have passion for work when you see a problem firsthand,” Sturt said. When you connect with a problem, it becomes personal.

Talk to someone outside your inner circle. The people in your inner circle are often a lot like you. Talking to people outside your immediate circle, Sturt said, “makes you think differently about the problem and just talking about it sparks new ideas.” Yet many people are uncomfortable discussing a problem with someone they don’t know well because they fear it makes them look incompetent. “It’s a myth we carry around in our heads. We just have to get over it,” Sturt said.

Improve the mix. People often are unsure what innovation looks like. You don’t have to throw out the old processes—just use them in a new way, he said. Add a new element or remove something that people dislike.

Deliver the difference. Most people think their job is done when they deliver a new product or implement a new system and the feedback starts coming in. But people who do great work stick with the idea beyond that, analyzing the feedback and tweaking the idea until they know whether they’ve actually made a difference in other people’s lives.

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor of HR Magazine.

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