The first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self; one’s own integrity, character, work ethic, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words, and acts.
Of all the areas of conflict among the generations, work ethic is certainly the most challenging to overcome—partly because it’s an elusive trait to begin with. An Internet search for a definition, for example, will yield many variations with subtle, yet quite meaningful, differences:
- Random House and Dictionary.com: “a belief in the moral benefit and importance of work and its inherent ability to strengthen character”
- Merriam-Webster.com: “belief in work as a moral good”
- Oxford Dictionary: “the principle that hard work is intrinsically virtuous or worthy of reward”
These definitions highlight one major area of difference among the generations: the degree to which work and the corporate entity are regarded as “good.” Such ideals have waned in recent decades, and many Millennials don’t subscribe to the notion that they should put work above all else.
As a manager, you need to discuss your expectations with your employees (as I’ve discussed here, here, and here). But be aware that your expectations are shaped by your own understanding and definition of work ethic. So as you discuss expectations, communicate to your employees the definition of work ethic that you’re using to frame the conversation. To help you define work ethic (both to yourself and to your employees), identify which of these personal attributes resonate with your management style:
- Honest. Be truthful in your dealings with employees, vendors, customers, and anyone else with whom you come in contact on behalf of the company. Do not intentionally mislead or misrepresent the company in its business dealings with others. Own up to mistakes and don’t blame others. (Honesty is the cornerstone of any definition of work ethic.)
- Full of Integrity. Maintain high-quality standards despite schedule pressures. Follow your own standards and exceed what is required. Demonstrate and uphold values and principles that create a climate of trust.
- Law-abiding. Act within the statutes of the law and the company’s rules and regulations. Don’t look for ways to cut corners and beat the system.
- Trustworthy. Speak the truth even when no one else does. Be candid and forthcoming. Give credit freely for others’ accomplishments. Stand by your commitments and own up to your mistakes. Don’t betray confidences (unless maintaining them supports an unethical act). Keep your promises. Be on time and prepared for meetings.
- Fair. Be fair and just in dealings with employees. Value and support diversity and inclusion across the board. When you are wrong, admit it and be willing to change your opinion.
- Respectful of others. Display grace under pressure and don’t lash out at employees, even when deadlines are tight or tempers flare. Show respect for all your colleagues (whether they report to you or not) by seeking their input when trying to solve problems.
- Dedicated. Deliver outstanding (not just “good enough”) results in all that you do. Don’t stop until the job is done and done right.
- Determined. Continually strive to solve problems, even in the face of adversity. Resolve to seek better and more innovative ways of doing things. Don’t accept business as usual.
- Accountable. Take personal responsibility for your actions and outcomes. When things don’t go as planned, admit it and avoid making excuses (or blaming others).
- Concerned for others. Show gratitude to direct reports and colleagues who work hard. Say thank you when your employees complete tasks and projects.
- Encouraging. Help your employees achieve their professional goals (even if that leads them out of your department). Care about their success.
Note that I’ve intentionally omitted loyalty from this discussion of work ethic, because the meaning of loyalty has shifted greatly over the past few decades. Millennials watched their parents live through the decline of corporate loyalty and saw them begin to job-hop as better opportunities presented themselves. In the wake of those experiences and in the context of today’s job market, Millennials have taken job-hopping one (or several) steps further: their loyalty to companies tends to last only about two or three years tops. Before you judge the Millennials harshly for this, though, remember, that companies and especially managers need to earn loyalty—and in many cases they don’t.
Directly connected to the lack of loyalty is a decrease in automatically bestowing respect for someone with a title. After hearing their Generation X parents openly discuss their own lack of trust in corporate leaders, Millennials are unlikely to give their trust and respect to any manager who hasn’t earned it from them. Generation Zers are expected to continue this trend as well.
Now that you have a good grasp of what work ethic is, you need to understand why it’s vital to the success of your company. Up next month: an exploration of how to tie the company mission to employee work ethic–and help the organization and employees alike achieve their goals!