Strategy & Leadership

Can You Teach Work Ethic?

Some people are born workers. They jump in, work hard until the job is done, and show up the next morning, ready to go again. Others are glued to their phones and can’t get anything done unless you are breathing down their necks. This all begs a question: Can you teach work ethic to people who aren’t naturally inclined?

Psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker recently addressed that question. She noticed a difference in work ethic between kids who lived on small family farms and “city” kids. The farm kids work (and work hard), she says, while the city kids complain about routine chores, such as clearing the table. Why the difference?

“I think it comes down to this: On the smaller farms, work is clearly valued, it is done routinely, by everyone, and the consequences for not doing it are obvious and clear,” she writes. “In other households, kids experience work as capriciously imposed by the big people and whether they do it or not has little observable consequence.”

Here are a few ways Hartwell-Walker’s research applies to the working world:

Set Clear Expectations

Just like a farm kid knows that the cows have to be milked every day, your employees need to know what is expected. They may not understand that employees should proactively seek out a new task once they finish an assignment — and if it’s not obvious, ask! It’s important to set expectations for what a technician’s productive workday looks like. No surprises.

Supervisors Get Their Hands Dirty

Lots of management work is administrative, which means sitting behind a desk and doing computer work. You know you’re working, but your employees can’t tell the difference between you typing furiously away on a proposal or tweeting like mad about the latest Game of Thrones episode. That’s not going to change, but one of the most important things a supervisor can do is teach work ethic. That may mean getting your hands dirty more often than you would like, or focusing on team leaders to set an example of hard work.

Let Natural Consequences Do Their Magic

If you constantly have to clean up messes from incompetent employees, ask yourself why you aren’t sending the employee to clean up their own mess, be it apologizing to an unhappy customer, or re-doing a job. Sure, it’s often easier to do it yourself or reassign the task to a more responsible employee, but how will your employee learn the consequences off a job poorly done if someone else takes the brunt of the bad consequences?

Of course, natural consequences mean let the good ones happen, too! When a customer calls to express their pleasure, make sure you let the technician know. When a job is well done, say so. Don’t ever assume your good employees know you’re happy with them. Speak up!

Teaching work ethic is a lot harder than just doing it yourself, but it’s among service managers’ most important jobs. Teaching people how to work builds a strong workforce, instead of cycling through employee after employee, searching for one with an innate strong work ethic. It should be part of every service manager’s job description.

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