The Difference Between Good Work and Great Work

Published: Apr 22, 2015
Modified: May 20, 2020


Are you truly focusing on the most important projects at work? See what 2015 AMA Thought Leader to Watch Michael Bungay Stanier has to say about the difference between Good Work and Great Work.

What is the difference between Good Work and Great Work?  My inspiration for this is graphic designer Milton Glaser, the man behind the “I Love New York” logo. He has a book called “Art Is Work” and at the very start, there’s a short introduction, where he says something that was life changing for me.  He basically says this: “Everything you do falls into one of three different buckets. It’s either Bad Work, Good Work, or Great Work.”

What we’re talking about here is NOT the quality of the work that you do. It is about meaning, and it’s about impact -- meaning and impact.

Let’s get into defining these types of work a little better.  First of all, Bad Work. This is the mind-numbing, soul-sucking, stab yourself in the eye, “Oh, my God, this is my life. What am I doing spending any part of my life doing this type of work?” type of work.  The wasteful meetings, the bureaucracy, the processes and the paperwork that kill you. I think everyone knows what I mean.

Good Work is basically your job description.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that.  It means it’s productive, efficient, focused, getting-things-done type of work. At an organizational level, Good Work is critical. If you’re a private company, that’s where your quarter on quarter profits come from.  We know how to do it.  We don't screw it up.  We’ve got a profit margin.  We’ve got people who need it.  That’s Good Work.

Good Work is important but also seductive. Here’s one of the ways you know that you’re sucked into doing too much Good Work. If you think back on the last week’s work that you did, and even though you put in 40 hours or more, you can’t really remember anything you did … well you’re probably doing a lot of Good Work.

That takes us to the third type of work, which is Great Work, and you might already have a sense of what this is. This is the work that is meaningful. This is the work that is impactful. This is the work you care about. This is the work that, when you signed up for this job, you were kind of hoping it would mainly be about. It stretches you, it inspires you, and it engages you.

But here’s the thing with Great Work. On the one hand, there’s this excitement about doing Great Work, this sort of thrill, this engagement, this real connection. But at the same time, there’s fear and anxiety and uncertainty and risk and ambiguity. There’s always a real tension between, “I want more Great Work,” and the comfort and familiarity and gravity of the Good Work keeping you busy.

This tension happens at a personal and a corporate level. The role of a senior leader in an organization is to say “we need to innovate; we need to change; we need to evolve; we need to be different from our competitors.” For me, that’s actually language of Great Work. Yet, what they’re also saying is, “But, you know what?  You need to focus on all your Good Work. Oh, and also when you do Great Work, don't screw that up, either.” It is tremendously difficult to accomplish both. At both an organizational and personal level, it’s important and difficult to find ways to do more Great Work.

About The Author

Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that gives busy managers the tools to coach in 10 minutes or less. He's the author of five books, the most recent of which is The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Dan Pink calls it "simple yet profound". Brené Brown says "practical and inspiring."