How to Improve Your Team’s Work Ethic

Determining work ethic seems a bit arbitrary. Since the average U.S. worker is working longer hours, surely that means the work ethic is growing?

Not necessarily. In Germany, workers clock fewer hours, but produce more. Putting in longer hours doesn’t automatically indicate a better work ethic.

A strong work ethic shows up in how responsible and reliable a person is, in how well they work with others in the team, and their ability to communicate.

You can help develop a strong work ethic in your team. Here are a few tips to help you do just that:

1. Define what you consider a strong work ethic

Not everyone thinks the same things are right or wrong, so it’s important that you sit down with fellow leadership to determine exactly what your company considers ethical or not.

This can look different for every business, based on the industry and model. For instance, one company may view punctuality as a highly important factor of work ethic, whereas another may not care when employees show up, as long as the job gets done.

And remember, every culture has different understandings of what is considered right and wrong.

2. Establish consistent expectations

Once you define what a strong work ethic means to you and your company, it’s time to make sure your team is well aware and on the same page.

Bring up these expectations at the hiring stage, outline them in the employee handbook, and go over in training. And don’t forget to continually assess if anyone on the team is struggling to make them a reality.

Some common expectations to establish regarding work ethic include:


Be serious about team members showing up on time, if that’s been outlined in your definition of ethics.

There are always moments in life where something happens and it’s acceptable to make an allowance, but make sure you relay to your employees the importance of arriving on time for work.


Part of a good work ethic is respecting others (coworkers as well as customers). Your employees should all maintain a high level of consideration and attentiveness to foster a good work culture.


Being dependable is the quality of being relied on to do what is expected of you, or what you say you’ll do. Everyone on your team has a job – you (and the rest of the team) should be able to depend on them to do it.

3. Use scenarios to help your team face ethical dilemmas

Psychologists often use scenarios to help people understand the way ethical behavior might look like out in the wild. You might use scenarios involving situations your team will likely face, or you might create general scenarios that just help them think deeper.

Try these 5 training scenarios to help improve ethics.

4. Incentivize hard work

There should be a clear connection between a good work ethic and solid reward.

It’s very difficult to keep up a good work ethic when you feel that there is no other incentive for doing good work other than personal pride. Not every team member is motivated (at least initially) by that.

To help motivate your employees to improve the way they work, try one of these 25 employee incentive ideas that won’t break the bank.

5. Don’t generalize

A common assumption is that some generations are better workers than others.

However, that’s not the case. Geography, culture, and how they were raised play a bigger role than the generation they are a part of. It’s also important to note: definitions for how work is best done aren’t the same across generations.

Essentially, each generation has different expectations and definitions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t all capable of a good (or bad) work ethic. Don’t let generalizations color your view of your team simply because of their age. That would certainly impact your employees’ morale.

6. Encourage persistence

A good work ethic starts with persistence. It’s the ability to stick with the work and not stop. But it’s also the ability to avoid burnout

Building persistence might be as mundane as removing distractions so a person can focus. Talk to your employees to find out how to minimize roadblocks to them getting their jobs done, and work together on those improvements.

7. Don’t toleration procrastination

A good work ethic doesn’t have room for procrastination.

Getting control of procrastination means understanding the three types of work:

  1. Must be done.
  2. Should be done.
  3. Could be done.

A good work ethic means knowing the difference between the three, prioritizing work according to the order of that list, and not shying away from doing the unpleasant if it is in the “must be done” category.

Help your team learn to identify work based on these three types, and even if it takes a bit of prodding or nagging at first, encourage them to do the hard, must-do things first.

8. Build a culture of taking ownership

If you have employees avoiding responsibility when things go wrong, you may have an ownership issue on your hands.

Watch out for phrases like:

  • “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me.”
  • “I couldn’t help it.”
  • “It’s so unfair.”
  • “It’s not my fault.”

While these phrases may be applicable once in a while, overuse creates a lot of problems for your team and it can hamper your efforts to build work ethic.

For some, learning to see a situation and think about it differently is all it takes to change from being the victim into taking charge of their work.

  1. Teach them to figure out what went wrong. Instead of seeing a team project as a failure that couldn’t be avoided, they can be taught to critically dissect what went wrong and think in terms of what’s positive, and what could be done differently next time.
  2. Teach them to understand the results of decisions. This gets to the heart of “it happened” and changes it to “we made decisions that led to X”.
  3. Reward ownership, don’t punish it. If your team members worry they’ll get in trouble for owning up to mistakes, they won’t readily share them. Make sure you publicly use positive words toward the person owning up, and work with them to fix the mistake. This helps create a more open culture.

What To Do When Team Members Have A Bad Work Ethic

Ideally, when you spot a poor work ethic, you can try out the techniques listed to make it better. But when that doesn’t seem to help the situation, it’s a good idea to revisit the situation with these steps:

  • Talk to them. Talk to the team member and show them how it is affecting other team members. Find out what the problem is. Talk about what a strong work ethic is. Let them know what you expect.
  • Set reachable goals. Set goals for the team member to work towards. Start small. Have regular meetings with the person to see how they are doing with the goals.
  • Reward good work. If their work ethic is improving, reward them in some way, even if it’s as simple as public praise. Again, let them experience the feeling that comes from good work.
  • Set a better example. How are you doing with your own work ethic? Do you get things done, meet deadlines and promises?
  • Fire them. If their work ethic never improves, you need to get rid of them. They are affecting the entire team negatively.

A poor work ethic affects everyone on the team. Work with your team members to fix the issues, or consider going back to the hiring board.

Each team member has different capabilities for output, but the core foundation of a strong work ethic – dependability, reliability, good work, punctuality – should be very similar. A focus on those things means the productivity and time use will take care of itself.

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