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Inspiring a desirable work ethic

How should employers motivate employees to do the work they have been hired to do?

Most employers desire employees that come ready made with a set of work ethics including punctuality, productivity (delivery), integrity and promoting company values and objectives. While some of these behaviours may already be present within the workplace, there is no guarantee that newcomers will exhibit the same attitudes and behaviours towards work.

While in the past, most companies complained about employees spending too much time on the phone, in the internet era, companies are also plagued by staff spending too much time surfing the net or occupying social networking sites such as facebook. This begs the question, what is the magic formula for instilling the desired work ethic in existing and prospective employees? Good news is, there are ways to address it. The bad news is - it requires dedicated efforts and initiatives to ensure that the results of these efforts are enduring.

As businesses – the most important goals include the brand, profit and also releasing the potential of the people in the business. Lamenting the lack of work ethic in the workplace is really not the answer – as I am sure many employers can attest to. Instead, the key is to take responsibility for changing for instilling a desired work ethic. This means actively creating mechanisms for identifying and articulating it in company documents and plaques such that it is not the company’s best kept secret. Taking responsibility is a key leadership strategy which involves management embodying the values and principles in their actions, interactions inside and outside of the company.

Following this, the company should clearly articulate its reason for being, what we usually call the vision. This needs to be taken one step further though – it needs to become a shared vision. When it is a shared vision, the company becomes a place where people love to come to work. Sounds simple huh? Well, the key is to find out from the people in the company, what their passions are and what would make them give their best. It is much easier for people who are in touch with their own life vision to connect to the organisation’s vision. In fact, if that personal vision can be connected to the organisation’s vision, we have hit the jackpot. People who are generally personally motivated are more likely to remain motivated in the workplace. More than a decade ago, Senge referred to this as the learning organisation where people excel and learn, not because they want to but because they want to. This learning is very closely connected to the organisation learning how to build on the passion of its people to achieve their objectives in an ever-changing market[1].

Only then, is it possible to get the team on board to unpack the vision and connect it to a set of t those values and principles mean in terms of the work ethic. It is a known fact that people will change or do something for one reason alone: because they want to. That decision is made based on how they feel and also what is in it for them.

A useful exercise in bringing staff on board is to ask each person to identify five people (living or dead) who they would choose to take with them on a deserted island to start a new society. They have to specify why they choose those people. For example, I would choose Ghandi because of his wisdom and approach in handling conflict. Then at the end list down all the qualities staff have chosen and get them to prioritise the top ten. From the top ten they then say how this applies on a day to day basis. For example, if they have chosen integrity as a value, they could say that we do what we say we will do by when we say we will do it. This spells out the work ethic for each person and also is a staff project as it is developed. This is something that can be blown up and hung up in the office to remind staff of these values.

Finally, it is then critical that all of these are instituted as an organisational culture. This is a combination of policy imperatives that cover issues such as ‘punishment’, rewards and incentives. One way to do this is to put together a team to come up with ways at the organisational culture level to deal with non compliance or adherence of the work ethic. It is also necessary to put together policies that address non-performance and also an internet policy for example. Many companies manage to block staff from accessing certain sites as standard policy. While discipline is often hard, it is critical that organisations do deal with it decisively and timeously. As a business owner for example, I have had a team member who was blatantly disregarding the work ethic in terms of non-performance and also tardiness. However, I did not deal with the matter soon enough, which stirred feelings of inequality with other team members who worked hard and delivered more than was required. In the end, I was forced to take disciplinary action as it was sending the wrong message to the team. This is referred to as equity theory where employees monitor the degree of equity or inequity that exists in their working relations by comparing their own outcomes and inputs with those of another highly similar person[2].

Within business organisations, it is important to ensure that the work ethic and values are a living set of guidelines. This includes rewarding employees who demonstrate these desired behaviours. It does not have to be monetary - it could fulfil a social need as well. In my company, we do the 3-monthly performance appraisal which includes feedback from other team members on the person’s performance in relation to the desired work principles as well. This could be a team evaluation as well. The team then collectively decide on a reward within a given set of parameters. The theory behind this is reward the behaviour you want to instill. In other words, most companies focus on disciplinary actions for the behaviours they do not want and do not reinforce the positive behaviours through acknowledging and rewarding it in some way or the other.

The best way to deal with bad work ethic is to take a pro-active preventative approach. Most leaders only realise the importance of this when they realise that it is not a given. Taking the time to instill this and reinforce and reward the right work ethic is critical. Even more importantly, companies who manage to instill this culture has to take even greater care in recruitment to ensure that they find the people with the right fit for the company.

Shamillah Wilson


[1] Senge (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organsiation. Random House Business Books.

[2] Vecchio (2006). Organisational Behaviour: Core Concepts. 6th Edition. Thomson South-Western



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