Where does our best work come from?

In a series of posts, called readers choice, I write on whatever topics people submit and vote for. This week’s reader’s choice post: Where does our best work come from?

I think four factors explain most kinds of performance.

  1. You are motivated
  2. You’re assigned a task you’re both confident in and challenged by
  3. You are well led and working for someone who respects you
  4. You are working with people you trust

The surprise is how rare in most people’s working lives are all four at the same time. Or even three of the four.

Personal motivation even by itself is tricky for most people to master. How to pick work that will be interesting day after day, or to stay focused on the long term payoffs even if the short term experience is difficult or frustrating. The real challenge of many things (including writing books), and the reason so many people fear them, has less to do with the work, than the fear of the commitment to the work.

Good leaders (#3) and working with people you trust (#4) are almost the same thing. A good leader will push out people who betray trust (See the No-asshole rule, and what Pixar’s Ed Catmull has to say). A good leader also puts trust in their team (delegation) and encourage people who have trust to offer to lend it to their peers.

Working alone, as I generally do, demands I take care of all 4 myself. Assuming I trust myself (#4), and treat myself with respect (#3), two things that can be surprisingly tricky, my performance is gated by picking the right projects and ensuring I have long term goals that motivate me.  The challenge of self-employment is making sure I provide all 4 factors – I have to be the employee and the leader all at the same time.

And if working with clients, you are in some sense picking your leader or source of respect (#3/#4).

These four items seem very simple, which is why they’re often overlooked. It’s unusual to experience all four at the same time. Great work can happen in spite of these factors, of course. And for some people the sense of overcoming a bad boss, or team, or situation, is a source of motivation – they have something to prove.

12 Responses to “Where does our best work come from?”

  1. Sean Crawford

    We couldn’t push out a disrespectful leader who had support from above.
    I once had a boss who distrusted and threatened us and called us bad workers. We were very stressed. As you know, people in shock may initially respond with an “every man for himself” mode.
    Fortunately, we kept trusting each other and doing good work. Finally he was fired before we were.
    My reaction was to build people’s self-trust by standing at the door at the end of my shift and reviewing for those remaining everything we had done all shift, and reassuring the others that we had not been lazy. We ended up with a good happy team, and a new trustworthy boss.

  2. Sean Crawford

    By “happy team,” of course, I mean that all four of Scott’s factors were present.

  3. Mike Nitabach

    Those are four great principles for managing creative professionals. If you as a manager are fostering an environment where those things all obtain, then you are doing a good job.

  4. Voranc

    Great post! I totally agree with the list of factors for great performance. I would just like to add one more – Think Win/Win.

  5. The Notes Web

    I like the articles. Motivation is the greatest power of our best work, then knowledge and the end is material or physical power that support both.

  6. Toshi O.

    Personal motivation is hard – but i find the marathoning part of it to be the worst. I can start, and continue with new ideas, but its the effort i guess that makes others successful.

  7. Chinedu Obi

    Any business firm whose employees possess the above mentioned factors is definitely on the right path to success. I hope I find those kind of employees someday. Thanks for the great post!

  8. Mike Nitabach

    I hope I find those kind of employees someday.

    You don’t find employees like that; you grow them.

  9. Issa

    Wow! You’ve sum it all up into four most important points and I totally agree with it. I’d say let passion be the driving force that makes you command the atom of your talent into creation… of someone you are really meant to be. I guess, this is what separates those who are born to excel than those who are simply contented with what or where they are right now. Cheers!

  10. Paul Higgins


    Mostly working by myself as well I agree with both the difficulties and that the client replaces 3 and 4 but also choosing the right clients is important in the first two.

    We have a model that says we would like to on average reject 1/3 of client approaches on the basis of them not being appropriate (e.g. tobacco), us not being appropriate for them (they need something else) or they are not prepared to put the depth of effort into a full foresight approach. On top of that we want to be able to check off three of the following four points:

    1. Are we being challenged to think deeply and differently?

    2. Are we enjoying ourselves? (right job with good people)

    3. Does doing this work leverage our long term goals and reputation?

    4. Are we leveraging our time and skills to make a contribution to our community

    We believe that approach maintains contact with all four points you have mentioned. All that helps with motivation but it is still tricky at times.




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