A participant at a recent training asked me to explain and give an example of what we mean when we use the phrases ‘Top 20’ and ‘Bottom 80’. We originally took this language from the Pareto Principle, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto. The Pareto Principle claims that 80% of the outcomes are determined by 20% of the people and that 20% of the outcomes are determined by 80% of the people. For example, 20% of the Girl Scouts sell 80% of the cookies and 80% of the Girl Scouts sell 20% of the cookies.

The basic idea is that some people have a greater impact than others. Wanting to understand why this was the case, our team focused on how people Think, Learn and Communicate. Sometimes we TLC in highly effective ways. We identified these time as operating as a Top 20. At other times we TLC in highly ineffective ways. These are times we are operating as a Bottom 80.

Let’s consider an example. Imagine being a teacher and checking your voice mail at the busiest and most hectic time of the day. The first message is from an angry parent and sounds something like this:

“This is Marge…Billy’s mother…Billy told me what happened in class yesterday…I am so mad about what you said…Billy now hates history and that used to be his favorite class…he had the best social studies teacher last year and now he hates it…I’m just furious and need to come up there immediately and talk to you about this.”

Most of us would immediately feel angry and defensive. However, we have a choice about how we might handle this. We could respond by calling back and leaving this message:

“Marge, I received your message and would like to listen to your concern. Like you, I want Billy to have the best experience possible in my class. Please come to my classroom after school when I will have some time to discuss how we can best make this happen.”

Although we may have been angry when leaving this message, our Top 20 thinking and communicating were highly effective.

We could have made this Bottom 80 response:

“Marge, got your message, but I don’t think you have a clue about what happened in class yesterday. In fact, I don’t know if Billy had a clue about what happened yesterday since he spent the whole class goofing off in the back of the room. Every kid you send here is a pain in the neck. Guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, huh, Marge?”


Responding to Marge in this way would result in her next phone call being made to the principal. Bottom 80 thinking and communicating not only fails to solve problems, but also serves to make them worse.

The Top 20 and Bottom 80 labels are not intended to be a comparison between people. Rather, they are simply a way of understanding two dimensions of our own selves. Sometimes we Think, Learn, and Communicate in highly effective Top 20 ways and sometimes in highly ineffective Bottom 80 ways.

We are all Top 20s.

We are all Bottom 80s.


  • Identify a time when you were Thinking, Learning, or Communicating in a highly effective Top 20 way.
  • Identify a time when you were Thinking, Learning, or Communicating in a highly ineffective Bottom 80 way.

Although we are likely to function in both of these ways, we want to develop more Top 20 habits than Bottom 80 habits.

From Willow, Kevin, and Tom…who live in the land of Top 20 and visit the land of Bottom 80.

Paul Bernabei
Top 20 Training