What Should you Optimize? Define Good Work.

leadership performance strategy team Feb 09, 2021

One of the most common, and tragic, causes of poor work performance is that everybody assumes the definition of Good Work is obvious, so nobody ever seeks explicit agreement on what it is.

When the boss doesn’t define Good Work, things can get bad.

I live in Oregon, where you are not permitted to pump your own gas. You have to stand around and wait while an attendant pumps it for you.

While standing around, I recently started watching gas station attendants, and over a few weeks I noticed three in particular who stood out.

The first attendant was always smiling, always took an extra moment to say hello to each customer, and seemed focused on making sure that every customer who came through felt noticed and appreciated. I called him Mr. Happy.

The second attendant was always scanning the station for where the next empty pump was, and looking to see which pump had just finished filling, or was about to. If a line formed, he dashed over to direct waiting customers to the next empty pump. He was clearly making sure that wait times were minimized, and the station’s throughput was maximized. I called him Mr. Flow.

The third attendant seemed to be focused on taking the fewest physical steps possible. Instead of walking over to you with your receipt, he would stand at the pump and hold the receipt out, expecting you to walk over to him. If you didn’t, he would take the fewest steps he could, to lean over your car toward you and make you reach for it. He seemed focused on preserving his physical energy. I called him Mr. Turtle.

So, which of those three was doing Good Work?

It’s a trick question. We have no idea. We don’t know what their boss needs from them — we don’t know what the limiting factor is on station profitability or what customers experience as value.

If customers in this area care more about a pleasant interaction (Scenario 1), the first one is doing the best job.

If all customers around here care about is wait time, and drive off at the first hint of a line (Scenario 2), then the second one is doing the best job.

And if the owner’s biggest problem is attendants burning out and chronic labor shortages making it hard to serve customers (Scenario 3), then the third one is doing the best job.

This means Good Work is undefined. This creates several problems.

  1. Confusion
  2. Lost Profit
  3. Conflict


For the new worker, this situation is confusing. Which experienced worker should the new worker emulate — Mr. Happy, Mr. Flow, or Mr. Turtle? Confused workers lack certainty. They may try different things, seeking one that will be praised or that will work. Ultimately they may just decide to pick the approach that “feels best” to them — all the while secretly worried they picked the wrong approach. Their morale can never be high because they can never be sure they’re doing Good Work.

Lost Profit

For the owner, profit is lost. When 2/3 of workers are pursuing a sub-optimal strategy, they are not doing Good Work.


Worker Strategy Customers Value Happy Service (Scenario 1) Customers Value Flow (Scenario 2) Worker Shortage (Scenario 3)
Mr. Happy Maximizes customer satisfaction Annoys customer who values flow by providing unneeded cheer Burns self out, leading to staff shortage and long customer wait times
Mr. Flow Annoys customer who values cheer, as Mr. Flow minimizes customer interaction Maximizes customer satisfaction Burns self out, leading to staff shortage and long customer wait times
Mr. Turtle Annoys customer who values cheer, as Mr. Turtle minimizes customer interaction Annoys customer who values flow, as Mr. Turtle provides slow service Maximizes customer satisfaction



Workers care about Good Work. When they see another worker dong the work “wrong” it annoys them, and when the boss doesn’t clarify or comment it annoys them even more.

When Good Work is undefined, each worker has to guess what Good Work is. If he’s confident that he has guessed right, he will dislike or despise other workers who are “doing it wrong.” He may cast aspersions at them, criticize their mental powers or work ethic, or try to cajole or coerce them into doing it “right” as he sees it.

There’s no amount of conflict resolution skill that fixes this — yet it’s easily fixed with a clear policy by the boss stating what Good Work is for this job.

Moral – Defining Good Work

Ask your workers in each role what constitutes Good Work. Ask them to write their answers silently before comparing. Then share your own thinking, and allow them to persuade you if it’s appropriate. Create a shared definition of Good Work, and then notice it and appreciate it.

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