The Disappearance of Work Ethic – And How to Get it Back

Apr 29, 2014

Vya Staff

DocuStar is delighted to welcome Eric Chester to our Marketing Organizational Leadership series. Eric is an award-winning keynote speaker and author of Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce.

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In this discussion, Eric takes a look at the decline of work ethic, how companies are struggling and how to motivate for a better workforce.

Q: What's happened to the work ethic in America?
A: The decline of work ethic is not uniquely an American problem, but one that is affecting all Western nations and a growing number of those in the East. However, if we examine the American workplace today with a comparable example from the 1930s, 1960s, or even the 1990s, it’s easy to see that America has lost sight of the virtues that comprise work ethic—the very things that helped build our country.

The pursuit of happiness and the American Dream drove progress and innovation, but they came with unintended side effects. In many cases, for instance, healthy ambition has morphed into avarice. Urbanization and an emphasis on large-scale businesses means fewer and fewer kids are learning about work in the natural course of family life.

Technological advances that make life faster, more fun, more entertaining and easier to navigate are also consuming our time and energy while eliminating avenues for learning vital concepts about work. And pop psychologists have pushed parents to focus on building self-esteem in their children, creating at least two generations of me-centric workers. No wonder so many employers are use terms like entitled, disengaged, unmotivated and disloyal when describing their current workforce and potential labor pool.

Q: What sorts of business leaders are struggling with work ethic-deficient people?
A: Pull any employer to the side and ask them to describe, in general, the work ethic that they see represented throughout their ranks, and you’re apt to hear some colorful language. Even the eternally optimistic warm and fuzzy managers wince a bit when the term work ethic enters the dialogue. I interact with thousands of leaders, managers, business owners and execs each year and I’ve yet to find any who believe that the work ethic represented in the current labor pool stands up to that of the labor pool 20, 10—or even five years ago. These same employers, however, will openly lament the prevailing entitlement mentality of the emerging workforce that many decry is contagious has now infiltrated workers of all ages including Gen X’ers and baby boomers.

Q: If you were speaking to a disengaged or disenfranchise worker, what advice would you give them to motivate them to give their best?

-- Do whatever is within your control to eliminate the things that don’t motivate you. For example, when you’re choosing who to go to lunch with or hang out with after work, surround yourself with coworkers who enjoy their job as opposed to those “Debbie Downers” who are always complaining about the boss, the company, etc. If the break room makes you feel like you are in a jail cell, volunteer to come in on your day off and repaint it or bring in some table games, or posters or music, etc. In other words, take steps to create a more positive space for you to operate.

-- Get out of the mindset that ‘work sucks’ or ‘you’re stuck’. This is a free country, and no one is making you work where you do. No matter who you are, what skills you currently have or what you do to earn your daily bread, you have options. You can work harder and perform better in an attempt to get a promotion. You can use your off work time to take classes or improve your skills to move up in your present company or to become more hirable to another. You are in control of your career, so don’t allow yourself to develop a defeatist attitude or you will end up stuck, or worse, fired.

-- Work like you’re showing off. Approach your next shift as if your every move is being video recorded for a worldwide audience and that your parents, kids, friends and future employers are all tuned in. If you perform your normal job as you would under these conditions for an entire day, it would be impossible to feel down and disengaged. In fact, it will be impossible for your employers not to notice you. Very soon, you will be the very best at your job, and once you are, you will be promoted, you will see a dramatic increase in your pay and you will be sought out by other employers. When you are the best at your job, your future is unstoppable.

Q: Is it possible to work hard if you hate your job? Why or why not?
A: Passion doesn’t fuel work ethic; work ethic fuels passion.

Most people want to go about it backwards. They want to let their passions propel their efforts. They want an emotion-driven life, but our emotions don’t always lead us where we need to go or keep us where we need to be.

You won’t produce heat in your fireplace by saying, “Once there’s a fire, I’ll put in some logs.”  You put the logs in and build a fire, and then you’ll see some heat. Likewise, the passion you have for a job is directly related to the initiative you put into it. Many highly successful people in all walks of life have discovered that because they put a great amount of effort into their job, their job eventually becomes their passion. They didn’t set out to be the world’s greatest carpet installer, data entry clerk, or fry cook; they just set out to be the best they could be while in their jobs, and the next thing they knew they were awesome at it!

If a young worker says, “I don’t have a passion for selling shoes,” the first thing he needs to do is show some initiative by making selling shoes a short-term passion. If he throws himself into it, does all he can to learn the business and make himself the best, and he still doesn’t develop a passion for the job, that’s fine. He has still improved his reputation for adding value to a job, made himself more hirable, and developed his work ethic in the process. And then he can do his boss and himself a favor and quit. She’ll likely give him a good reference or help him find another position within the organization.

Q: Your book, Reviving Work Ethic, describes seven core values that comprise an individual’s work ethic. What are those seven components?
A: Over the past ten years, I’ve interacted with, listened to and surveyed more than 1,500 employers (business owners, C-level executives, HR professionals, managers, supervisors, etc.) in an attempt to understand what work ethic looks like from their perspective. In each exchange, I listened to their various laments about that lack of work ethic and responded by asking this question:

“What do you expect from each and every employee?”

At the risk of sounding simplistic, I can summarize hundreds of responses in one sentence: Employers are searching for positive, enthusiastic people who show up for work on time, who are dressed and prepared properly, who go out of their way to add value and do more than what’s required of them, who are honest, who will play by the rules, and who will give cheerful, friendly service regardless of the situation.

There are non-negotiables in this summation. By that I mean that there isn’t any one of the seven core work ethic values represented above to which you, as a leader, don’t personally aspire and hold yourself accountable in demonstrating each day. Likewise, you expect these same core values to be evident in everyone you work for, work with, and oversee.

We can shorten the summation by defining each value with these seven terms: attitude, reliability, professionalism, initiative, respect, integrity and gratitude.

Do you have an experience where you had to motivate your team due to a decline in work ethic? Sound off below or join the discussion in the LinkedIn group, “Marketing Organizational Leadership.”

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Tags: Blog, facebook, marketing, technology, Marketing Organizational Leadership, executive, employer, employee, workforce, smartphone, ambition, progress, business, workplace, labor, urbanization, innovation, gen x, gen y, millenials, work ethic

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