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Work ethics: 5 tips for managers to develop strong teams

October 28, 2022 - 11 min read
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    What does it mean to have a good work ethic?

    Work ethic is one of those terms that we can all visualize, but have a difficult time explaining. We know that there are — objectively — things that matter when it comes to performing well at work. When we build teams and set goals, we hope that they’ll be enthusiastic, engaged, and productive. But boiling that down to specific behaviors is a murkier task.

    In school, the idea of a good work ethic may have been tied up with our grades, the number of classes we took, and how many hours we put in. In work, there are fewer opportunities to assign metrics to success. That’s why, in the workplace, it’s easy to fall into the trap of more hours = better work ethics. 

    The thing is, we’re not machines. Longer hours doesn’t always equate to increased output — in fact, it’s often the opposite. But many of us are unsure how to demonstrate that we’re committed to our work without putting in more facetime. It’s an easy trap to fall into — and certainly reflected in many managers’ own biases. But that doesn’t mean that it’s true.

    Think of it this way: Imagine something else — anything else — besides your work that matters deeply to you. How do you demonstrate your commitment to it? To your hobbies, relationships, and family? Do you keep putting hours in, focusing on quantity over quality? Or do you maximize the investments you make when you’re there?

    The divorce rate will certainly prove — time invested in an endeavor doesn’t guarantee success in that undertaking. You can spend years making the same mistakes, never learning, or perhaps even making things worse. Work ethics are similarly a function of how you show up — not how often.

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    What does work ethic mean?

    Work ethics are defined in various ways across both psychological and philosophical literature. It seems that at its heart (both ontologically and linguistically) there’s a moral interpretation. To work hard and sacrifice is good; to slack off and be wasteful is bad.

    There isn’t a company out there that doesn’t want to hire people with a strong work ethic. These individuals go the “extra mile.” They rarely take time off, prioritize work, and exhibit a high level of employee loyalty. But this image of what a good work ethic looks like can result in teams prioritizing the wrong behaviors. And this can lead to a culture of presenteeism, not productivity.

    Work ethics are essential to the success of any company, but they can be difficult to define and even more difficult to measure. However, some results of your employees’ work ethics are evident in your employee engagement surveys. These rank how happy workers are with their current jobs, as well as their overall satisfaction with the company. 

    But to maintain engagement and productivity, we have to balance “traditionally” hard-working behaviors with sustainable ones. This sets the stage for longevity, and for a stronger work-life balance as employees learn to thrive in hybrid environments.


    What is a strong work ethic?

    A strong work ethic is someone who has the willingness to put the time, energy, and effort into their work. A person with a strong work ethic will not shy away from tough challenges but instead, find a way to make them happen.

    However, it’s hard (and unfair) to assign traditional characteristics (like punctuality, responsiveness, and “initiative” to work ethic. Many of these characteristics are subjective and arbitrary. People with caregiving responsibilities, neurological differences, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds have often had these “standards” levied against them. There are many reasons that a working parent, person with ADHD, or any other professional may be late to work or unresponsive — and few of them have to do with commitment to the job.

    Instead, work ethics is really more about the desire to show up and work to the best of your ability every day. It’s like working out. A balanced fitness routine doesn’t mean working yourself to failure in the gym every single day. It means a good mix of activities that result in overall health. That certainly includes pushing yourself and staying on your edge. But it also includes days for rest and recovery, finding activities that you love, and giving yourself the fuel you need to excel at them.


    Developing strong work ethics in your employees and yourself can have enormous positive effects on your business. But first, it’s important to define what they are and why they’re so valuable to the growth and success of your organization. 

    How work ethics influence teams

    Whether you’re running a small business with just one or two employees or managing a large group of employees at a corporation, one of the most important things you can do is establish, promote, and encourage strong work ethics within your team. Good work ethics include taking initiative, working hard, and making the right decisions when faced with difficult situations. 

    Characteristics of a team with good work ethics

    A team with good work ethics will demonstrate a few key characteristics. They will be highly motivated, reliable, trustworthy, engaged, accountable, proactive, creative thinkers, and aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. The team members are also supportive of each other by helping with constructive feedback or problem solving as necessary. 

    Your team’s work ethic is influenced by individual work ethics — this makes up your work culture. Ideally, your employees will create “norms” around the following traits:

    • Positive attitude

    • Preparedness

    • Conscientiousness

    • Self-care

    • High-quality work

    • Future-mindedness

    • Self-awareness

    There are many components of a person's work ethic. You can help build the culture you want by prioritizing what you want your employees to prioritize. Co-workers can help push each other towards a higher quality work ethic by supporting one another.

    How bad work ethics can be toxic in the workplace

    While strong work ethics can boost morale and encourage teams to collaborate, bad work ethics can be toxic. They may affect the quality of work produced as well as your team's happiness. 

    Examples of poor work ethics:

    • Lack of communication with team members and stakeholders

    • No planning around foreseeable time off requests

    • Multitasking when talking to others or working on projects

    • Skipping meetings, coming unprepared, or failing to give input

    • Poor organization and attention to detail

    • Uninterested in learning or developing new skills

    • Takes little to no responsibility for work performance

    • Unethical behavior in the workplace

    • Overwork, burnout, and poor work-life balance

    Leaders, human resources, and managers can develop strong work ethics within their teams by acknowledging the benefits of strong work ethics and discouraging bad ones. Work ethics are a function of employee engagement

    If you notice that certain members are showing signs of resentment or slacking off more often than usual, it could indicate bad work ethics are developing. On the other hand, it might indicate that employee needs are going unmet. In these cases, you should meet privately with the employee and talk about what the problems might be. You can help them develop the work ethic skills that will benefit both them and their team.


    How to develop good work ethics

    To start developing good work ethic — either in your team or as an individual — first think about what makes up a strong work ethic. Doing this will help you understand your own personal values when it comes to working hard for something. 

    People who have a strong work ethic are intrinsically motivated. They do their job well and meet expectations even if others don't hold them to such high standards. A leader who wants to foster these qualities would do so through providing opportunities for group learning and collaboration. Recognizing individuals on the team for hard work goes a long way towards reinforcing these traits in your team. 

    Here are some ways to foster good work ethics on your team:

    1. Communicate the importance of work ethics and make it clear what you expect from your team. Setting expectations clearly gives everyone a standard to aim for and reduces confusion. A lack of clarity can hinder both productivity and trust.

    2. Provide a supportive culture. A culture of strong work ethics will reward hard work and effort and encourage autonomy. It supports experimentation, collaboration, and risk. 

    3. Pay attention to employee morale. Low morale is often mistaken for poor work ethic — but it’s more often an indicator of burnout. If attitudes are souring, don’t be quick to blame the employee. A positive work culture is just as contagious as a negative one. If your employees are upset, they may be reflecting a larger environmental issue.

    4. Celebrate wins. Don’t underestimate how much recognition plays into a person’s success at their job. Take time to recognize achievements often. Be sure to also recognize behaviors that you want to see more of, like creative thinking and teamwork. 

    5. Create a company culture of growth. Professional and career development go hand-in-hand with positive work ethic. Prioritize opportunities for learning. Seeing a clear path to the next level is energizing for your team. Help them get there.

    Strong work ethics are important because they lead to a positive working environment. Conversely, weak work ethics can make an already stressful environment even worse. As a leader, it's your responsibility not only create a team with strong work ethic but also encourage them with positive feedback when they do something right. Punishing someone who isn't living up to expectations doesn’t do much for motivation. You’ll want to support people by paying attention to what they need to show up at their best.

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    Published October 28, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Staff Writer

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