What Outstanding Employees Do: Don’t Just Ask, Watch Then Ask


Michael Jordan, Richard Branson, Seth Godin, Bill Gates: name any outstanding performer you like. People who are very good at what they do generally can’t tell you why. From plumbers to professors; from farmers to pharmacologists; from rat catchers to researchers. Famous performance researcher Dr Thomas Gilbert says that all outstanding performers – he calls them “exemplars”– have one thing in common. They are very good at what they do. This applies to outstanding employees too.

And Another Thing …

Outstanding or exemplary performers have something also in common. If you ask them what they do that makes them exemplary they generally can’t tell you.

What Exemplary Performers Think

I’m not saying that outstanding employees won’t or can’t say what they do. I am saying that what they say they do and what they actually do may be … well … quite different.

The evidence is overwhelming. The research goes back decades. I could quote a raft of studies that would probably mean nothing to you. They’re not household names. This isn’t the place to quote the research in depth. But contact me direct and I’ll provide the details.

Research Or …?

Before I took my business online, I used to work as a consultant to large companies. To satisfy government legislation in Australia, it became fashionable for companies to conduct “performance analyses”. Outstanding employees, whether plant operators, salespersons, accountants or factory workers were asked what they did that made them so good at their jobs. One of my client companies threw themselves into this work enthusiastically. They wanted to know what it was that their “best” workers did that made them “best”. The workers co-operated fully without coercion.

“… Reality?”

The trouble was, saying and doing didn’t match. When the researchers sat and carefully observed these outstanding employees in action, they didn’t do exactly what they said they did. The researchers discovered that there were lots of small but significant differences between what outstanding employees said they did and what they were actually observed doing. The workers weren’t lying. They simply weren’t conscious of the importance or the value of these little things. The differences may have been small. But the effect of the differences was huge.

What About “Plan, Organize, Lead and Control”

I have to say this. There is simply no strong evidence to suggest that effective managers pay most attention to what this famous theory suggests. It is only a theory. It was proposed by a French engineer, Henri Fayol back in 1916. If you’re studying the history of management you should know about Fayol’s theories. But if you want to know what successful managers actually do, there’s a mountain of empirical research indicating that effective managers do far more important things than good old POLC.

What’s All This Mean?

It means this: if you wish to replicate the work of any outstanding employee in your business, asking them what they do won’t help much. Whether it’s instinct, talent, experience or plain rat cunning, it’s unlikely they know exactly what they do, let alone why they do it. But to be helpful, they’ll tell you what they think they should say.

Watch, Ask, Confirm

Observe what outstanding employees – exemplars – actually do. Then ask them about what they do. “I noticed that you always arrive at least 5 minutes early for an appointment. Do you think that’s important? What’s so important about it?” After they’ve explained their position, confirm what they say with them.

The Little Things

The differences between “say” and “do” are usually small. But the influence or value of these small things is huge. The exemplar may not consider them important. But over a season, the difference between hitting 65% and 75% from the free throw line is a lot of points.


I know that what I’ve said in this post flies in the face of what you may have been taught or told. And it raises lots of questions about these “How To” books written by high achievers, doesn’t it?

What To Do Now

If all this sounds too absurd to be true, try this exercise. Think of someone you know who’s really good at something: barbecuing steaks, fishing for bass, ironing clothes; any one of umpteen ordinary tasks. Ask them what they do that makes them so good. A week later observe them carefully and record your observations. Let me know what you find out.

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