What is a “Good Work Ethic”, really?

March 19, 2007 8:55 am Published by

One of the most common statements I hear from families with whom I work is: “We just want our kids and grandchildren to develop a good work ethic.” This is sometimes in the context of discussing their wealth transfer plan, and they don’t want to leave their heirs so much money that it interferes in their developing foundational character qualities. Sometimes the comment is in the midst of business succession planning and the parents are stating that it doesn’t matter to them whether or not their kids work in the business, but they want them to work somewhere. Or sometimes the statement comes in the midst of discussion about leaving a legacy and passing one’s values onto the next generation. Almost always, a “good work ethic” is included in the list of important values.

But do we really know what we mean when we say “good work ethic”?  I am convinced many people do (usually those who have one), but for many, the term is largely symbolic and when asked what they mean, they have a hard time describing what a good work ethic really is. My contention is — if you can’t describe it, you may not know what it looks like when you get there, and clearly you aren’t able to design a plan to help your children grow in these characteristics.

First, we need to understand they are skills, behaviors and habits that can be taught and learned. That is, they aren’t transferred through your gene pool.

Characteristics that describe a “good worker” include:

1. Showing up. Unbelieveably (to me), one of the consistent character qualities business owners and managers report to me is that they want someone who just show up. Many times employees just “don’t show” — sometimes they call, sometimes they don’t. And this isn’t just for entry level unskilled labor, this includes college graduate “professionals”.

2. Being punctual. Employers want someone who will come to work on time and are ready to work when they are supposed to be. Unfortunately this is a problem in our culture today — many people are always “running late”. I often comment — if you were scheduled to have an appointment with someone you really admire and want to meet, would you be late? Or if you knew you would get $100 for being early, would you make sure you accounted for unexpected obstacles?Punctuality is a choice, nothing more, nothing less.

3. Following instructions. This starts with listening when the instructions are given and then making sure you understand the instructions — if not, asking clarifying questions to ensure understanding. Then actually doing what you have been told to (and in the way you were instructed) is important. Many employers complain to me that young people think they “know better” and choose to skip steps because they don’t think they are necessary.

4. Staying on task. Continuing to work and getting the job done (even when no one is watching) is a habit that develops over time. It includes putting forth a consistent, good effort; not taking excessive breaks, and continuing to work even when you are tired. Like a physical muscle, I believe the mental and emotional toughness needed to keep working develops over time with practice.

5. Doing quality work. Completing the task in a quality manner, rather than doing the minimum necessary, will set apart an individual from most of their competitors or peers. Having pride in accomplishing a task well, even though it takes extra time and effort, is a quality someone who is accomplished in their field develops. And it starts with the “little things” — mowing and trimming the lawn, folding clothes neatly, putting away all of the dishes in their correct place, cleaning out the car, etc. And individuals who learn to “above and beyond” their customers or employers expectations are setting themselves up for a lifetime of success.

6. Having a positive “can do” attitude. Individuals who approach a task with the attitude of “let’s see how we can get this done” are more likely to be successful (and are more fun to be around) than workers who have a negative, critical and complaining attitude. Just recently, I had an employer tell me this is one of their core characteristics they look for — he said, “We’ve learned that we can teach a lot of skills but we can’t teach a positive attitude.”

7. Demonstrating creative problem-solving. Probably one of the most desired character qualities is the ability to figure out a way to get the task done even when one has encountered an obstacle or problem. Many people stop and wait for the “boss” to figure it out (often just hanging out, wasting time). Others will go and report something like “it won’t work” or “we can’t get it done because …” (and then the supervisor either tells them or shows them how it can be done.)  Individuals who will stop and think, use the resources at hand (even by asking for help or advice), and figure out a way to overcome the challenge become a incredibly valuable asset to the organization for which they work.

These are a few of the basics needed in order to have a good work ethic. And most of us, when reading the list, say “Yea, I’d love to have workers like that.”

But the real questions are: Would others say I demonstrate these characteristics? If not, which ones do I need to work on?How will I do this?

Do my children and grandchildren display these behaviors? What can I be doing to help them learn and practice these habits?



Published by
March 19, 2007 8:55 am


  • Striker D says:

    Your article is very insightful as to what the future holds, and indeed requires, for the next generation. This article was so important, my Dad printed it out and gave it to my brother and I to read (I think my brother’s the one he was aiming at though). This is very good information for alot of rich kids who afford to go to top ranking private schools, and expect their education to be the way to an easy high-paying job. Perhaps these spoiled individuals will be brought to there knees in there ignorance, to be replaced by somebody with a rags to riches type of story.

    Speaking of rags to riches, the movie “The Pursuit of Happiness” is a great example of work ethic, maybe the best Hollywood has to offer at the moment. It meets up to all the requirements you’ve posted here, and is a great family film.

    On a side note, did you know Superman was an editor for “The Daily Planet”? The other response to your artice was from “The Daily PlanIt”. If Hollywood doesn’t have an influence on America, I don’t know what does.

  • Paul says:

    “The Pursuit of Happiness” was a great movie about perseverance and working hard. When I interview successful business people and ask them what do they attribute their success to — one of the most frequent answers is “perseverance”. They just kept doing what they knew to be good service, kept at it, picked themselves up after failure (many have been financially bankrupt), and kept plugging. Unfortunately, in our culture the focus is often on quick success, which I think leads young people to either look for fantasy solutions or to become discouraged and give up.

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