Book Review & Notes on Hundred Percenters by Mark Murphy

Hundred Percenters, Challenge Your Employees to Give It Their All and They’ll Give You Even More by Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is all about tough love in the workplace. For him, traditional business goal-setting techniques are just not hard enough, employee annual appraisals don’t work, and most exit interviews and employee surveys are a waste of time because people don’t really tell the truth about how they feel.

In addition, too many leaders sidestep critical issues and too many employees settle for “okayness” instead of greatness.

He reckons to know all this because the company he founded and runs, Leadership IQ, has polled more than half a million leaders and employees and discovered they share one depressing perception of performance: 77% of leaders think most of their employees don’t give their best and 72% of employees agree with them!

Murphy, who has provided leadership training for the likes of Microsoft, IBM and MasterCard, wants to put that right with Hundred Percenters, an insightful read that kicks off with the logical point that if you want employees to give you 100% effort — and to love doing so — you have to be a hundred percenter leader first.

Too many of us are not. Some of us are avoiders — managers who fail to confront, showing concern neither for performance nor people issues, or intimidators who try to bully their way to achievement and success without caring about employees’ feelings, or appeasers who just want to make everything nice and cozy for the workforce, even at the expense of performance.

Two ingredients distinguish between each of these categories — the extent to which leaders push employees to do better, which Murphy encapsulates as challenge, and the strength of the emotional link between leader and employees, which he calls connection.

Avoiders neither challenge nor connect; intimidators challenge employees but fail to connect with them; appeasers do it the other way around, focusing on connection and holding-off on the challenges. Only hundred percenter leaders employ both techniques to achieve commitment and outstanding performance from employees.

If you want to know which category you fit into, you can take a test at the website. (There are lots of other free, downloadable resources there too.) If you come up short, yet aspire to being a true hundred percenter, Murphy has the formula: set tough task and performance goals, build accountability into workplace behavior, know what really turns employees on (and off), create and praise high-performing role models, and deal firmly with troublemakers.

That’s all there is to it. And, not to be flippant, that is precisely Murphy’s point: this isn’t management rocket science; it’s a simple set of guidelines you apply with rigor and determination — an approach that has been proven to work with his own clients for many years.

Setting HARD Goals

Remember the business standard that says goals have to be SMART — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-framed? That’s for wimps, says Murphy. SMARTees seem to be saying: “Don’t push beyond your resources; don’t bite off more than you can chew; play it safe and stay within your limitations.” Pretty dumb, he declares. That’s going to get you nowhere fast.

Instead, his critical success factors in goal-setting are:

  • Heartfelt (they exist to serve something bigger than ourselves);
  • Animated (vividly described and presented);
  • Required (critical to continued existence); and
  • Difficult (so tough they’ll test everyone to their limits.

These are HARD goals, stirring stuff. Think John F. Kennedy declaring that the US would put a man on the moon or Winston Churchill warning that Britons would fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets; but, whatever happened, “we shall never surrender.” Fortunately, however, you don’t have to be a world leader to issue a HARD challenge. You just have to be willing to push past what’s easy, to do what’s right.

Let’s take a closer look at what he means:

Heartfelt goals are those that go from the heart — in other words, drenched in sincerity — to our customers and end users. This requires abandoning the common lip service mode of customer service (where everyone repeats the mantra but no one really cares) and inspiring employees to truly care about delivering. Heartfelt goals are visionary. Recall the story of the three stone masons, all doing the same job, who were asked to describe what they were doing. The first said he was laying bricks, the second that he was building a wall, the third that he was building a cathedral. The last guy is the one with the Heartfelt goal.

Murphy contrives another acronym to guide us towards putting heart into our goals — NOBLE. We should: Name a party, Other than ourselves, who will Benefit from this goal, Like customers or End users.

Setting Animated goals is also intended to inspire people to action, forcing us to push ourselves hard in pursuit of success. An example would be the “I have a dream…” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., which exploited the power of imagery to the point where his audiences across the decades have been able to visualize exactly what he was talking about.

The best way to develop an Animated description like Dr. King’s, says Murphy, is to imagine successful completion and describe what it looks like.

But a HARD goal doesn’t just mean graphically describing some imagined, awesome future success. The Required element of HARD calls for a shared understanding that this is something a business must accomplish to survive and prosper. If it isn’t Required, just nice to have, no matter how Heartfelt or Animated, then it’s not the sort of goal you’re looking for.

To get employees up to 100% commitment, they must be able to see for themselves why the goal is Required, why they need to hit it and why you think they’re not already delivering their full potential. Explaining this is your job.

On the other hand, the Difficult part of HARD requires little explanation. Research has shown that the tougher the goal — provided it’s not actually impossible and provided it is clearly defined (so, the “Specific” part of SMART lives on after all) — the better employees perform. Part of the reason, the author suggests, is that Difficult goals instill confidence — employees believe you wouldn’t be asking them to take on such a task unless you thought they were capable of achieving it. And HARD goals tell employees that their work is important.

“HARD goals are not SMART goals,” Murphy explains. “HARD goals care more about the challenging nature of the goal than about making sure it fits neatly onto a worksheet. HARD goals don’t sound formulaic and that’s exactly what makes them so real and so inspiring.”

Accountability and Feedback

Non-hundred-percenters like the status quo. Think about it: if they didn’t, they would have changed it by now. But, by definition, HARD goals demand change. However, moving them out of familiar territory and stretching individuals to their limit inevitably raises the risk of errors. And how you deal with them — and teach others to deal with them — is critical to success.

If you want to be a hundred percenter yourself, you cannot Avoid the underlying issues, or Intimidate the mistake-makers by berating and humiliating them, or Appease them by delivering what Murphy calls a “compliment sandwich,” in which criticism or guidance is tucked between soothing, laudatory statements.

And you definitely don’t want to apply any of these approaches to employees who are already hundred percenters, since Avoidance or Appeasement will undermine your credibility, while Intimidation will demotivate them. They know what’s what and probably are already beating themselves up about the mistake.

How best to do it? Time to bring on another acronym — IDEALS:

  • How best to do it? Time to bring on another acronym — IDEALS:
  • Disarm yourself – set aside your prejudices, forget about hurtful criticism. Cool down before the meeting. Again, with partnership in mind, say something like: “I’d like to review the situation to make sure I’m on the same page as you.”
  • Eliminate blame – you’re not setting out to make employees feel bad, though it’s okay to acknowledge a difference of opinion over what happened.
  • Affirm their control – let employees feel they have a say in the matter by saying something like “Does that sound okay?” in response to your comments and suggestions.
  • List corrective feedback – the actions need to put things right. The golden rule for giving constructive feedback, says the author, is that it makes perfect sense, holds up to scrutiny, is understandable and teaches sufficiently. Follow this up in writing.
  • Synchronize your understanding. Invite the employee to say how you both can work together to build on the lessons learned and make things even more effective next time.

Motivation and Demotivation, Shoves and Tugs

Here’s your problem: You may already have hundred percenters or near hundred percenters in your team, but unless you demonstrate how much these people are valued, the under performers won’t budge. After all, if you back-pat and reward a fifty-percenter at the same level as the high performer, why should the former bust a gut to improve? And what do you think the hundred percenters are thinking, when you fail to distinguish between the two? That’s right: why bother?

We’ve got to keep our hundred percenters continually striving to give 100% and we’ve got to teach everyone else how and why to give the same, says Murphy.

Research has repeatedly shown that more money is not the answer. Leavers may tell you at the exit interview that higher pay was the motivation, but they’re probably lying. They’re likely uncomfortable about telling you the truth (especially if it’s critical of you) and don’t want to risk your ire in case they need to call on you for a reference.

Nor, per se, is praise the answer. Positive reinforcement often is much more effective. While praise may consist of vague compliments, positive reinforcement means telling someone that what they just did was right and that you want to see more of it. And it’s at its most effective when delivered immediately after the action. Don’t wait (for the annual appraisal) and never use it as the outer slice of a compliment sandwich (another performance appraisal component)!

The author also advocates using hundred percenters and other great performers as role models — publicly extolling their actions through the mechanism of storytelling. This means looking for examples of their performance that anyone should be able to replicate, then relating the story using language that draws on senses and emotions (like graphically describing the scene and feelings such as anger or fear), following a sequence that sets the scene, describes the protagonist, outlines the struggle and, finally, delivers the victory.

But above all else, the key to successful motivation is understanding precisely what makes your people tick, a more complex task than you might imagine since everyone has a different set of demotivators and motivators, or as the author labels them, shoves and tugs. Your mission, should you accept it, is to discover them, each and every one.

And here’s another problem: shoves and tugs are not flip sides of the same coin, any more than are, say, pain and pleasure. You can’t fix the pain of a sore foot by rubbing the sufferer’s back, and you can’t fix a demotivating shove by delivering a motivational tug. For example, the author relates the tale of a Silicon Valley team frustrated and snappy about meeting the very tight deadline for a new product. To cheer them up, the boss takes them out for lunch to decompress, but, of course, they just get angrier, thinking about how they could be using this time on the project.

There’s a simple way of discovering your employees’ shoves and tugs: ask them. Specifically, invite them to describe a recent time when they felt demotivated and one when they felt motivated, or excited. This is very concrete and should get the conversation going so that you can explore their feelings more deeply. If you ask them just to say what might or might not motivate them, they’ll give you an imaginary list, which is of little or no use. And here’s a tip: Resist the temptation to become defensive about demotivators — that’s not what the conversation is about. Listen and learn.

Often other people’s behavior or the undemanding nature of a particular task will be among the shoves. So too will be the absence of the very things that provide a tug. Although individuals’ answers will be, as Murphy says, “as different as people’s hair color,” they will most likely fall into one of seven driving needs that influence their behavior:

1. Achievement – preference for challenges rather than low-risk tasks and a need for regular feedback on performance.

2. Power – desire to be in charge and a dislike of being told what to do or how to do it. Power-driven people want to be well-regarded and to be followed.

3. Affiliation – wanting harmonious relationships and acceptance by others, affiliation-driven employees thrive on personal interaction and team activities.

4. Security – the need for a clearly-defined job role and “sure bets” for projects and activities. Even hundred percenters in this category may prefer to stay in the same role for long periods.

5. Reward – yes, some people are motivated by reward potential. They always want to know what’s in it for them and they want to see tangible reward for effort rather than for time in the job.

6. Adventure – in other words, risk, change and uncertainty. Pursuers of adventure jump at challenges and don’t worry about failure.

7. Actualization – a desire to feel good about yourself and your work. Self-fulfillment and reaching your greatest potential are the name of the game.

As you meet each employee in your personal orbit — and you need to do exactly that, even if it means seeing a different one every day for months — list their shoves and tugs, then do whatever you can to eliminate or neutralize the shoves before even thinking about the tugs. Remember, a person won’t enjoy a back rub while someone is hitting them on the foot with a hammer! Then seek to identify tasks and roles that provide the tugs.

Uh-Oh – Here Come the Talented Terrors

Some great performers have a curious mix of skills and effort blended with a canny ability for causing trouble or just riling everyone, especially you. Doesn’t it just drive you crazy? Here are these clever people whose idea of entertainment seems to be rooted in making everyone squirm or turn to anger, and whose idea of effort fluctuates with their moods or the task ahead.

You probably know one or, if not, your employees certainly will. No matter how hard they work, how good or even admired they are (and some people will admire them for their skills or even for their cunning), these “talented terrors” cannot be hundred percenters, says Murphy. They need to change … or walk.

Here’s why: They negatively impact your team, trying to drag others down to their level of disapproval and disruption, while potentially driving away your hundred percenters; they destroy the effectiveness of your leadership by sending a message about your inability or unwillingness to deal with them; and they may even get you fired — tolerating low performance is one of the top reasons for terminating chief executives.

Trouble is, we tend to recruit people based on their skills rather than their attitude, but it’s the latter that permeates through the ranks. And once they are in, they are difficult to deal with, not least because talented terrors (TTs) are also great actors, showing their best side when it’s in their interest to do so, and feigning surprise and innocence when tackled. After all, they’ve probably been working on these techniques all their lives.

Murphy invokes the following rules for managing behaviors that accompany a bad attitude, this time without an acronym:

  • Timeliness – don’t let bad attitudes fester and become entrenched; tackle them as soon as they’re spotted. Left to, say, the annual appraisal, the TT will already have stockpiled defenses and examples of great performance to counter you. That’s part of their talent.
  • Objectivity – this isn’t about your feelings (hint: the TT isn’t interested in them). Keep the focus on their bad behavior and state only the facts. The same goes for outlining the consequences both of their behavior and what will happen if they do not change.
  • Specificity – talk about actual incidents and observable details, avoiding generalizations like those that begin with things like ‘You are always…” (because they’ll prove that they are not).
  • Candor – no compliment sandwiches, please. Think of it this way — if you were one of three people who each had to give a presentation on the same subject, you wouldn’t want to be on second, because no one ever remembers what comes in the middle. Same goes for criticism in the middle of a compliment sandwich. The TT won’t pick up on it.
  • Calm – everyone knows that if you lose your cool you may lose the argument. TTs will try to bait you, since they know this will get you to speak without thinking; as soon as you do, they’ll turn the situation around on you.

Finally, whether your terrors are talented or not, you have to present them with a change ultimatum. But it must be delivered as a choice they can make — after all, you cannot force them to do something against their will, and if you try to box them into a corner they will just become worse.

“All you can do is outline the choices and enforce the consequences,” says Murphy. Those choices are either to agree to change, with a commitment from you to help them become more effective, or, not to change. In the latter case, you tell them you will invoke an improvement plan. And if they don’t respond to that, they’re out. Give them 24 hours to think things over.

Here’s the author’s suggested closer: “Joe, I believe you are capable of changing this behavior. But only you can choose the path that’s right for you. Just be clear that there are only two options here, and maintaining your present course is not one of them.”


Hundred percent performance is achieved through the twin mechanisms of challenge and connection. You challenge your employees (and yourself) by setting HARD goals and you connect with them by identifying and nourishing their tugs and neutralizing their shoves.

You must strike the fine balance of acknowledging and rewarding — in the broadest sense — your existing hundred percenters, while inspiring those who are capable of joining them, and dealing firmly with those who would undermine your efforts.

Ultimately, Mark Murphy’s book is as much about turning yourself into a hundred percent leader as it is about achieving this same result from your employees. In reality, one naturally follows from the other, and both rely on the same tools and techniques. They are mutually inclusive — you can’t have one without the other.

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