How to Make a Difference People Love: Insights from Largest-ever Study on Award-Winning Work

What constitutes great work? How do you really make a difference people love?

David Sturt, EVP of O.C. Tanner Institute, spearheaded the world’s largest-ever study on award-winning work. Instead of most research that focuses on personality traits, O.C. Tanner took a different approach and focused on the work itself – under what conditions it happens, and what people are doing when they produce it.

 “Think about how your work affects others, look at the larger purpose of your work and who it benefits, and see yourself as a potential difference-maker.”

Here are seven distilled insights on how anyone can have great work – that is, to make a difference people love. The seven lessons are organized in two categories: how difference makers think and what difference makers do.

How Difference Makers Think…

1.    Reframe Your Role – The role of a difference maker is available to everyone.

Instead of viewing work as a series of daily to-do lists, difference makers, irrespective of how unglamorous their jobs are, craft their jobs. Job crafting is the process people use to expand their existing job expectations to suit their desire to make a difference. By reframing their role as someone who is making a difference people love, they bring greater meaning and purpose into work. Reframing happens when you make a mental connection with a grander purpose of the job: its social benefit, its worth to society, its potential to make a difference.

Who would have thought a hospital janitor could play such a critical role on the healing team. Check out the video that shows the power of reframing your role.

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When Mindi’s son needed specialized lifesaving surgery, she, her husband and little McKay flew across the country to find a qualified team. Surrounded by renowned doctors and world-class facilities, they were surprised to find the care and healing McKay needed came from the last member of the hospital’s staff they would have expected.

 2.    Work With What You’ve Got – Good is the foundation of great.

Jim Collins said, “good is the enemy of great.” But Sturt argues that good work is the starting point for adding something great. Instead of seeing limitations inherent in projects as risks and potential for failure, difference makers use it as building blocks on how something good can be transformed into something great.

A lesson in Legos: working with what you’ve got.

Whenever we feel limited by our jobs, we need to remember that our limitations are a starting point for great work. There are so many untried combinations. So many avenues to explore. As inspiration, consider that six eight-stud Lego bricks can be put together in more than 900 million different ways.

See the Math

What Difference Makers Do…

3.    Ask the Right Question – Great work begins when we take the time to ask if there’s something new the world would love.

Difference makers take time to ask what people might love. They think about the people they serve (co-workers, team members, leaders). They ask questions like “Can I make thing something easier? Simpler? Faster? Safer? Greener? Smarter? Difference makers think out on the edge. They entertain crazy notions that lead to brilliant ideas. They constantly imagine what people might love if anything was possible.  Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

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Rachael Herrscher, CEO of TodaysMama.com, discusses the process of learning to ask the right questions in the right way. Rachael Herrscher is CEO and co-founder of TodaysMama, an online media and publishing company founded in 2004. In her role as CEO Rachael oversees general business operations, social media, new market development, partnerships, and marketing initiatives. As well, Rachael is the co-founder of EVO , a social media conference for women.

4.    See For Yourself – Difference makers look with their own eyes from a variety of perspectives to see new possibilities.

Great work happens when you see work from a variety of perspectives to discover improvements worth making. This opens your eyes to fresh thinking and novel solutions. Difference makers observe everything that affects work, by being there in person. They attentively watch what people do and look at the process (such as the flow of the work). They explore other disciplines such as nature, sports, the arts, and the sciences to borrow brilliance. They examine the details, such as visiting the customer, looking at the data, paying attention to little things. Lastly, difference makers look at the future by catching a glimpse of changes that are just around the corner. They consider opportunities that future conditions might bring.

Watch the next clip to see how ‘seeing it for yourself’ has led dramatic improvements in Subaru. Is it possible to make 600 cars a day without producing garbage? When Subaru’s parent company Fuji Heavy Industries suggested Denise and her team get as close as possible to zero landfill, she was shocked. How do you eliminate all waste from a car plant the size of six-and-a-half football fields that produces 15 tons of waste every 24 hours?

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 5.    Talk to Your Outer Circle – Conversations with people we don’t usually talk to lead to ideas we wouldn’t think of our own.

Difference makers have conversations with people in both your inner and outer circles. They pay attention to new thoughts and ideas to challenge their thinking. They invite others to join your great work expedition by tapping into people’s natural desire to share opinions. Interestingly, the conversations they have with outer circles leads to one another. They ask people whom you should connect with next. Social media tools like LinkedIn and Facebook are used purposefully to expand their circle. They leverage crowdsourcing far beyond people they know.

Watch the TED talk by KIVA co-founder Jessica who is a pioneer in microloans empowers people who live on a few dollars a day. You can witness the immediate impact of connecting the outerrcicle.

KIVA co-founder Jessica Jackley helps connect lenders with potential borrowers around the world, whether it’s a farmer in Cambodia or a shopkeeper in Sierra Leone, thereby funding entrepreneurship worldwide for as little as $25 a loan. See how microloans are making a difference.

6.    Improve the Mix – We find improvements worth making by adding and removing ideas until everything fits.

Great work is a product of constant refinement. Difference making isn’t easy, but those who sketch it out, play with it, fine-tune it, and perfect it before delivering to the team, company, and customers make a huge difference. Often difference makers use 3 x 5 cards, sketches, and diagrams to lay out all the ideas. They add something new by adding more ideas and editing. They notice the intended and unintended consequences. After this they would start remove something to improve things. They imagine ways to reduce and simplify.

Here’s how a Spanish biologist who has developed a fish farm that acts naturally by “improving the mix.”

Located on an island in the Guadalquivir River in Southern Spain, Veta La Palma looks more like a bird refuge than a fish farm. Miguel shared the full story behind the world’s most sustainable fish farm with us for Great Work. See chef Dan Barber talk about Miguel’s tasty fish.

 7.    Deliver The Difference – Great workers aren’t obsessed with positive outcomes. Their work isn’t over until people love the result.

Instead of focusing on the moment of delivery, great work happens when you are obsessed with outcomes. Difference making happens when people stay engaged, stick it out, and see it through. If your work isn’t well received, they fine-tune their work for success. This happens by having a growth mindset. Failures are signposts for success. Difference makers create great work that inspires others by becoming sensitive to what people love and by being a catalyst for great work.

Here’s a quintessential great work story where Skip Hults, superintendent of a dying public school in the middle of nowhere affected a real difference.

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When Skip Hults became superintendent of Newcomb Central School in the heart of Adirondack Park, he inherited a tradition of excellence, a talented faculty, a supportive community, and 55 kids to fill 350 seats. It was a case of grow or die. But how do you grow a school?

Question: How do you make a difference people love at work?


  • David English

    Great stuff, Paul. Thx. Great stories.

  • Yes, wonderful stories & examples. I’ll have to go back & watch all the videos. Nicely done!

  • Great post! Loved that line; ‘good is the foundation of great.’ I’m a perfectionist and so it can be so easy for me to fall into that trap of discarding good work unnecessarily.

  • Ford Fischer

    Awesome post and videos. Very inspiring.

  • Leo

    Always good stuff. Keep it up!