The 80-20 Rule – At Work

I’m a big, big fan of the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 Rule, which posits that in many systems, 80% of the outcomes are due to 20% of the causes. (For a discussion of what the 80-20 rule isn’t, check here).

Often applied to the sexual marketplace or the sales world, I’ve noticed that it can apply to the workplace environment itself. Two particular ways come to mind.


Unless you work at a place that is just unusual, you can probably count on 80% of the enterprise’s quality, esprit de couer and serious productivity coming from 20% of the workforce.

To give a cartoonish (and fabricated) example, the guy who figures out how to make the iPhone touchscreen fit in the case with the circuit board is important to the product’s success. It couldn’t happen without him. However, the project itself wouldn’t be happening at all without the visionary genius of Steve Jobs. Without Jobs, the greatest impresario in the history of modern technology, the touchscreen designer’s three-dimensional puzzle genius would be useless.

The big ideas, the big sales, the closing of deals, the leadership during high-stress times, all come from these vital few. There is a degree to which the alpha – leading, organizing and thinking big – comes before the beta – working out the details, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s.

A lot of people with this level of power are not competent to handle it. A guy with a big title with no leadership skill or executive ability is not going to be there for long (but sadly will often be there long enough to screw some stuff up). I’ve noticed that people in the rank and file expect a lot from those in the 20% of their enterprise, and like Philadelphia sports fans, they’re very quick to turn on them in the event they fail the expectations – descending into either contemptuous rage expressed in minimalist attitudes of passive-aggressive least interest, or into bored, dissolute cynicism about working for “the Man.”

I want to make it clear that the above doesn’t mean that those functionary people aren’t important, that their jobs are worthless or anything like that. It’s just that they are, for lack of a better term, fungible. You can swap in one accountant for another when it comes to approving expense reports, or one IT specialist for another to maintain the company email system. What you can’t do is swap out the Chief Financial Officer or Chief Technology Officer and expect business to go on as usual.

But even then, the “fungible” workers are not so – they both form and express the organization’s culture, and embed cooperative goodwill that helps get things done without getting personal. Good leaders recognize this phenomenon; poor ones ignore it at their peril. (Related: it is one of the key traits of really excellent leaders that they aren’t afraid to hire people smarter than them, and then to listen to them.)

To clarify again, there’s nothing wrong with being in the 80% of workers who are pulling an oar. They are, largely, the people who have made the exchange of having a bounded, high-stability job that has more flexible working hours and fewer temporal demands, in exchange for other life goals such as family time, lower stress or lack of acute accountability. There’s nothing wrong with this choice (lots of society’s positives come from people who have made just this choice), it just means that they won’t be climbing the ladder and having their hands on the controls of big projects.

The point of this section is that if you want to move up, get big things done, or to affect the organization in a tangible way, you’ll need to identify and cultivate relationships with that 20%. The larger the organization, the more likely it is your workday will require interaction with people you don’t know and may never get to know beyond a purely on-task basis, which both helps and hampers your efforts as it’s harder to get those relationships, but they probably differentiate you more when you do get them.

Finally, the 20% won’t always be apparent on the org chart. Secretaries and executive assistants have long been key gatekeepers of the powerful. Some rank-and-filers have ingratiated themselves into roles as trusted advisors and right-hand men for powerful figures, and other are simply friends who can pull the right levers from the back seat. Always keep your eyes open for seemingly-innocuous people who have themselves cultivated good connections.


I also believe that 80% of your job satisfaction will come from 20% of your work (or some comparable leverage).

Every job has a bunch of gotta-do stuff that nobody enjoys doing. Filing expense reports, drafting onerous memoranda, modding the presentation slides for the 12th damn time, testing the projector which always fails in the middle of your briefing – sometimes firing people or telling customers you’re cutting their business. But all that stuff is tolerable – to a point – if you’re convinced that the core of your purpose is being expressed in your overall work.

Sometimes it’s a functionary task that really gets you going, like writing code, arguing in court, cooking or making cocktails.

Other times, it’s the mission behind what you are doing that is key – giving people a place to eat and drink and have a good time (waiter), connecting professionals together so they can learn from each other (say, a conference manager), or helping people get their finances in a more secure position (financial advisor). Millenials who have been browbeaten by their bleeding-heart Boomer parents should take heed: you don’t have to save the world with your job. However, it’s a lot easier to be satisfied and tolerate the negatives if you believe your job has some positive impact on the world.

One corollary of this section is that you should avoid spending too much time bitching about the bad parts of your job, because every job has crap that people don’t want to deal with.If your job has that core 20% that really makes you proud, you should look on the bright side and realize that not everybody has even that. If the 80% is still too unbearable, then you’re in a bad exchange and – though it’s easier said than done – you might want to start looking for something that better fits your passion.


Filed under original research, quarterlife crisis

5 responses to “The 80-20 Rule – At Work

  1. Candide

    Never bitch about your job or your health to other people. There will be at least one (or their loved ones) whose job is shovelling shit or who’s battling cancer.

  2. Lakes

    Good post.

  3. Pingback: Linkage is Good for You: Week of May 6, 2012

  4. Pingback: Steve Jobs, Alpha Male | The Badger Hut

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