Working With People, 80/20 Style

Van Gogh, "Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun," Minneapolis Institute of Art. Close up.

Van Gogh, "Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun," Minneapolis Institute of Art. Close up.

In a recent trip to Barnes and Noble, where I love to aimlessly browse through books, I was drawn to the section on business management and start-up ventures. A fan of Shark Tank, I picked up Robert Herjavec’s book You Don’t Have to be a Shark: Creating Your Own Success and thumbed through to a chapter on the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule is a mathematical principle that Herjavec describes this way:

Eighty percent of the effects of any activity comes from 20 percent of the cause.

Or, put another way:

Eighty percent of a company’s business is made from 20 percent of its customers.

Right now the 80/20 Rule is hip. Thumb through any food or fitness magazine and you'll see the 80/20 Rule applied to anything from eating in moderation (focus on what you're eating 80% of the time; don't worry about the 20%) to exercise (80% of your results comes from the 20% that you do). 

But I want to apply the 80/20 Rule to working with people.

Earlier in Herjavec’s book, he wrote that while working as a bill collector, he realized that 20% of people would never pay their debts, so he focused on the 80% who would.

Lightbulb moment: focus your energies on the 80% of what you can accomplish and who you can accomplish it with

So what does Herjavec's story have to do with my life?

You see, a large part of my job is working with people. As a professor, I teach over a hundred of students a semester, I work in a department with over thirty instructional staff and faculty members, I am part of a campus with over 10,000 students and hundreds of employees, and I attend conferences where 300-3,000 other academics attend. Needless to say, I’m around people all the time. And part of my job is to win people over to my point of view: whether that’s teaching freshmen about the importance of writing, or explaining to faculty members how to more effectively teach and grade writing, or talking with department colleagues about an improved grading method.

Focus your efforts on the 80%
Herjavec’s point about focusing on the 80% was an important reminder for me. When time and energy is short, I need to focus my efforts on the 80% of people who I can shape and influence—the willing 80%. In the classroom, this translates into those who take my feedback seriously, those who come to my office hours, and those who are hard workers. As a colleague, this means finding people on campus who want to be my ally, who want to share teaching techniques, and who want to discuss research. 

Don't get discouraged by the 20%
Herjavec could have easily let the 20% who wouldn't pay their bills frustrate him. He could have also let the 20% color his perspective about how good he was at his job. But he didn't. He took the long view: he won't be able to collect 100% of accounts. And that's okay. What does this look like for me? Well, I often expend my energies on the resistant ones: the ones who aren’t sold on writing or communication, or the ones who aren’t sold on writing and communication from my point of view. And I often get discouraged by the 20%. But, instead of letting the 20% get me discouraged, I need to focus my gaze on the 80%. 

As a teacher who loves teaching, I will always be drawn to the tough cases—the students who don’t want to be in my classes and the faculty who aren’t interested in my perspective about writing and communication. And that’s okay. I don’t need to convert everyone. I can’t convert everyone. And maybe I’m not the person to convert them. Focusing my efforts on the 20% means I’m going to get burned out expending my energy, time, and emotions on people who aren’t interested. Instead, I need to save the best of me for the 80% who want my help and knowledge and let go of the 20% who don’t.


Let's connect! I'd love to hear how you're applying the 80/20 Rule to your life to increase productivity, motivation, and happiness. I'm @GeneseaC on Twitter and @CattingWithAlice on Instagram.