How to Improve Work Ethic: Advice for Leaders

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Do you feel like your employees are lacking a sense of work ethic? Are you looking for tips on how to improve work ethic in your organization?

Work ethic is, to a large extent, down to individual employees: Some people have a greater work ethic than others due to their personality or life experiences. That being said, there are things you can, as a leader, do to improve work ethic among your subordinates.

With this in mind, here’s how to improve work ethic in your organization. 

Articulate Your Ethical Expectations 

The first step to improving work ethic among your subordinates is to articulate your ethical expectations. This is only logical: If you want people to behave ethically, you must spell out what ethical workplace behavior looks like and why it’s important to behave in that way. 

In his book What You Do Is Who You Are, CEO and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz explains how to improve work ethic within an organization. His advice is to articulate your ethical expectations clearly so there are no gray areas. Ethical gray areas where the correct course of action is unclear leave room for each individual to decide. This can spell disaster for an organization if an individual makes a wrong choice.

To demonstrate the consequences of failing to articulate clear ethical expectations, Horowitz uses Uber as an example. Although Uber founder Travis Kalanick thoughtfully designed the company’s culture, he left ethical gray areas that employees filled in with the company’s other values: a hustler’s mentality and an emphasis on competition. The culture didn’t clarify ethical boundaries, and it encouraged finding a way to “win” in every situation, which made ethical breaches commonplace. According to Horowitz, this led to Uber employees committing acts that exposed the company to liability while harming employees and customers. 

TITLE: What You Do Is Who You Are
AUTHOR: Ben Horowitz
TIME: 47
READS: 61.7
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: what-you-do-is-who-you-are-summary-ben-horowitz

Build a Climate of Trust 

In addition to having clear ethical expectations, you should foster a climate of trust in your organization. Higher levels of trust strongly predict higher organizational performance across a range of markers, including ethical behavior. 

In their book The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner explain how to improve work ethic by building trust. To develop a climate of trust, they recommend three practices: 

Be the First to Trust

Trust must be reciprocal; your team won’t trust in you if you don’t trust in them, and as the leader, you must be the first to demonstrate trust. Trust is contagious, so once you demonstrate it, others are likely to reciprocate. Distrust is contagious, too, so the reverse is also true: If you show that you don’t trust others, they’re unlikely to trust you.

You can’t force others to trust you, but you can earn their trust by respecting them and their abilities. 

  • Allow your team to do the work you assigned them without close oversight. 
  • Encourage them to solve problems on their own. 
  • Empower them to make decisions and to use their expertise in the way they feel best. 

Show Empathy

As jobs become more automated, the real competitive advantage of workers—especially leaders—will be their ability to foster strong relationships. The best leaders will be the ones people see as a partner with whom they want to work, instead of as someone merely issuing orders.

To show empathy for others, treat them respectfully. 

  • When you treat people respectfully, you show them that you accept them for who they are. In doing so, you allow them to feel valued, which motivates them to work harder for you. 
  • It also encourages them to speak freely to you about challenges, with an understanding that you’ll be constructive in your responses. This ensures that they deal with problems proactively.

One of the best ways to show respect for someone is to actively listen to them. Active listening is more than just hearing—it’s engaging in a conversation centered around their thoughts and concerns that makes them feel valued. When you listen actively, you:

  • Ask questions that probe and result in insights.
  • Offer suggestions.
  • Listen to ideas nonjudgmentally so people feel comfortable bouncing thoughts off of you. 

Share Knowledge

When you share your knowledge and insights with your team, you reassure them of your competence, which increases their trust in you. Conversely, if you keep information to yourself, they’ll feel you’re protecting your “turf” and looking out for your own interests over their interests, which decreases their trust in you.

Encourage your team members to share information with each other, as well, as this will similarly increase their trust in each other.

TITLE: The Leadership Challenge
AUTHOR: James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner
TIME: 47
READS: 74.2
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: the-leadership-challenge-summary-james-m-kouzes-and-barry-z-posner

Prevent Ethical Fading

Finally, you should constantly watch out for any breach in your ethical code. Otherwise, the people within your organization can start to suffer a gradual decline in their work ethic, which can build on itself and eventually create a toxic work environment. This is called ethical fading: People engage in increasingly unethical behavior while convincing themselves that they’re acting fairly and properly. 

Simon Sinek (The Infinite Game) suggests looking out for three factors that encourage unethical behavior:

Poorly Designed Incentives

Poorly designed incentives can lead to unethical behavior where employees feel pressure to hit their targets by cutting corners, bending rules, and making unethical decisions. When employees who do this are then rewarded with bonuses and promotions, other employees get the message that the organization prioritizes winning at all costs. Employees start to feel compelled to keep up with colleagues who are acting unethically in order to keep their jobs or stay competitive for promotions and raises. This can result in organizations filled with unethical actors and can lead to big problems.

Use of Rationalizations 

Sinek posits that unethical behavior is not merely caused by flawed incentive structures that reward unethical employees and punish ethical ones, but also by self-deception, created when people rationalize their unethical choices. He outlines a few different ways we rationalize our own unethical behavior: 

#1: Using euphemisms to disguise the true nature of our actions: When we use less-charged words to speak of unpleasant things, we distance ourselves from our actions and make them feel less wrong. For example, we don’t “fire” people, we “restructure,” and if something goes wrong, it’s “collateral damage.”

#2: Blaming the system: A leader who’s confronted with the consequences of her decisions often blames the “system,” arguing that the system is designed to encourage, and even necessitate, these sorts of unethical decisions. 

#3: Blaming the customer for enabling our behavior: The legal defense of “caveat emptor” (“buyer beware”) is frequently used by companies to disassociate themselves from their unethical decisions; the argument is that the customer should have known what they were getting into, and if they didn’t want the consequences, they have only themselves to blame. 

Rigid Structures Can Promote Ethical Fading

Sinek notes that, at times, a leader will try to fix behavioral problems by implementing new rules and regulations instead of addressing the underlying reason behind the issues. For example, if a company starts getting an increased number of customer complaints, company executives may start requiring their customer service reps to watch a series of online training programs to improve their service skills. However, if the executives investigated why their customers are increasingly unhappy, they might discover that their reps feel pressured to service more customers than they have proper time for, and consequently are making each customer feel rushed. If this was the case, adding additional training requirements would actually worsen the problem by taking more time out of the reps’ day. 

Such fixes focus on the symptoms of a problem rather than the root cause, and more often than not, create new incentives for ethical slipping. Sinek says that to counter ethical fading, you must view it as a people problem, not a process problem, and you must address the root cause instead of fixing the symptoms. 

TITLE: The Infinite Game
AUTHOR: Simon Sinek
TIME: 52
READS: 149.8
BOOK_SUMMARYURL: the-infinite-game-summary-simon-sinek

Final Words

Poor work ethic can be tricky to address because it’s hard to diagnose where the problem is coming from, especially in large, hierarchical organizations. Therefore, the best piece of advice on how to improve work ethic you can take on board is to make sure any efforts you put forth are organization-wide. 

If you enjoyed our article about how to improve work ethic, check out the following suggestions for further reading: 

Leadership and Self-Deception

Leadership and Self-Deception explains how self-deception derails personal relationships and keeps organizations and leaders from achieving the results they want. Instead of focusing on producing results, many leaders are trapped “in the box” of distorted thinking—they blame others to justify their own failures and can’t see how they themselves are a problem. They create the “people” problems that plague many organizations. Through a business fable, this book tells leaders how to get “out of the box”—but you don’t have to be a leader to use the principles to change your life and workplace.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable explores how teams fail to work cohesively together through a dynamic, five-part model of dysfunction. The five dysfunctions are 1) absence of trust, 2) fear of conflict, 3) lack of commitment, 4) avoidance of accountability, and 5) inattention to results. Through identifying these root causes of poor teamwork, teams can develop specific strategies for overcoming each of them.

How to Improve Work Ethic: Advice for Leaders

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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