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Written by Robert Valenti
Published: September 21, 2017

The Problem with "Work Smarter, Not Harder"

Often, a simple thought progresses from a thought or saying to an adage and then to be almost an axiom that is universally accepted as true.  Such is the case with the thought that one should “work smarter, not harder”. 

This thought has burrowed its way into every aspect of contemporary life; it is told to adults and children, workers and students, managers and employees.  Like other sayings such as “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” or “don’t cry over spilt milk”, this message is relayed without critical analysis about its truth or appropriateness.  Sometimes, smoke does not indicate fire and it is sometimes appropriate to cry or mourn over smaller losses (the proverbial “split milk) in one’s life.  This author postulates that “work smarter, not harder” may not be an appropriate way of managing one’s work or personal life and that an overreliance on this concept can cause more damage than good to those asked to do so. 

Let’s break down the assumptions inherent in the statement above. 

Assumption 1 -  The Task Itself

The statement automatically assumes that there is a better way to perform a task, complete an assignment, or manage a problem.  The first apparent problem is that this statement is completely devoid of problem solving techniques or time-frames; rather; it automatically assumes that the problem has been solved, that the solution will work to solve both short- and long-term issues, and that the worker/student can simply apply this heretofore unknown way to “work smarter, not harder”. 

Standardized problem solving techniques can be broken into three critical steps:

  1. Anticipating a problem or recognizing it when it occurs
  2. Analyzing the problem qualitatively or quantitatively (or both)
  3. Recommending an appropriate control or fix

A manager or professor stating that someone should “work smarter, not harder” skips this process and automatically jumps to the final step. A better approach would be to at least explore the problem with those affected to identify appropriate approaches and to determine whether the affected have the skills and abilities necessary to carry out the change. 

Holden (2016) substantiates this in his work when he relates that efforts to improve productivity in retail establishments in England without the benefit of analysis or forethought caused workers to feel that they are working harder (68% of survey respondents) while simultaneously feeling that productivity has declined (74%) during the same time period.  It would be reasonable to expect that similar opinions regarding the difference in effort vs. productivity would be seen in other lines of business where solutions are implemented before the underlying problem becomes fully known. 

Assumption 2 – Resources

In this context, resources can be either tangible (i.e., materials, money, etc.) or intangible (i.e., time, people, etc.) and the underlying sentiment is that the affected should solve problems while consuming fewer resources as identified above.  In this circumstance, we are assuming that the person asked to “work smarter, not harder” possesses the ability to be a good problem-solver. 

While it may often be true that there are ways to solve problems that are less resource-intensive, this is far from a universally applicable statement and can lead the manager to discount the effort required to identify and adequately deploy new problem-solving methods.  It could be possible that the effort needed to research and test newer problem-solving methods devoid of sufficient resources will be far more time-consuming than the current status quo solution. 

Daniels, et. Al (2013) addressed this dilemma when they use qualitative techniques to determine the effect of problem-solving as it was related to job design performed in the absence of sufficient resources and found that nearly an equal number of workers classified the exercise negatively as those that found the experience to be positive.  In fact, many workers described the exercise as annoying, frustrating, and worrisome. 

The authors also noted that sufficient social supports were strongly desired and often necessary when addressing problem-solving on larger scales; it can be interpreted that a manager simply stating a need to “work smarter, not harder” does not directly imply that teamwork or social interaction should be pursued as part of problem-solving efforts.  Rather, it may be implied that the listener would often interpret this as a charge to find less resource-intensive ways to solve problems and to do so independently. 

Without sufficient direction and guidance beyond this trite statement, managers may start to establish a process that is very likely to end with frustrated workers and unsuccessful solutions while still consuming the same amount of resources to get there. 

Assumption 3 – Skills and Training

It should be plainly obvious that not all workers have the ability to work smarter, not harder, and that the ability to problem-solve should be graded on a spectrum akin to the Bell Curve.  Some workers will be able to do so intuitively and produce results that range from desired to outstanding.  Other workers will struggle in absence of guidance and coaching and then will naturally produce less-desired results.  This would be a significant problem by itself but we then have to extrapolate these results into the future. 

A good leader or supervisor would obviously provide the support necessary for those less skilled in this regard with an aim toward skill improvement while not overworking those that are talented in this regard. 

Managers should be reminded that “working smarter, not harder” is not a zero-sum game.  Given the advances of quality and lean management processes in virtually all business fields, gains made in terms of time or resources are not singular or registered on a ledger as tangible.  Rather, these gains are then recycled into future process improvements. 

In today’s hyper-charged and hyper-competitive business environment, some supervisors would be expected to develop an over-reliance on talented problem-solvers while assigning duties to the less talented that suit their other own strengths.  The above would inevitably lead to a treadmill-type effect where managers task the talented to solve problems, the problems are solved after the expense of significant effort, and then these same people are tasked with further improvement ad infinitum.   What it is shown above is not only a recipe for process improvement but is also a recipe for the eventual burn-out of your more talented employees.   

An interested corollary to the above can be found in Khan’s (2011) work when the author undertook research to determine whether the predominance of a Type A personality are significantly associated with a tendency toward burn-out.  The authors found that a direct correlation could not be made but that those associated with Type A personalities are at least more prone to depersonalize during times of overwork or stress.  A connection can be drawn between this research and possible negative effects if someone with a Type A personality is the talented problem-solver who becomes overtasked in our proverbial treadmill scenario.  Since workers with this personality type are likely to be the type to volunteer for such activities, it seems that the risk of “burning out” these employees may be high. 

It is important to note that this writer does not completely rule out that the concept of “working smarter, not harder” has benefits to a workplace.  As a maxim, it does promote alternative thinking and the pursuit of unique and productive solutions.  It is also a necessary evil in today’s competitive work environment that the pursuit of constant and incremental improvement will necessitate problem-solving exercises. 

It is the point of this work that managers should be cautious in determining how, when, and to whom this maxim is applied.  Managers should ensure that workers are properly trained to anticipate, recognize, and evaluate the source and extent of problems before charging workers to develop controls or fixes to said problems.  Managers should ensure that those tasked with problem-solving have sufficient resources to identify and remedy problems even if the problem at hand is to find ways to do more with less.  Managers should also work to share problem-solving exercises across the entire staff even if this requires them to train those less skilled in this regard while also being aware of personality traits in their more effective performers that will make them prone to burn-out over time.


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  • Daniels, K., Glover, J., Beesley, N., Wimalasiri, V., Cohen, L., Cheyne, A., & Hislop, D. (2013). Utilizing job resources: Qualitative evidence of the roles of job control and social support in problem solving. Work & Stress, 27(2), 200-221.

  • Holden, D. (2016). Working harder but not smarter: what employees think about the productivity puzzle. British Politics and Policy at LSE.

  • Khan, S. (2011). Relationship of job burnout and type a behaviour on psychological health among secretaries. International Journal of Business and Management, 6(6), 31.

Robert Valenti

Written by Robert Valenti