How to Develop a Strong Work Ethic Among Your Team

Strong work ethic. Reliable work ethic. The yeti and the unicorn.

Fairy tales, all of them?

Sometimes it seems that way. You’ve probably seen the headlines, too, where employers are complaining about the work ethic they see today. “Employers Don’t Think Much Of Millennials Work Ethic” the headlines scream. You get the sense that there’s a huge work ethic problem, that a strong work ethic is all but extinct.

Happily, that’s not the case (not even with younger generations, as we’ll talk about in a bit).

How Do You Determine What A Strong Work Ethic Is?

The most obvious question is: do you know what a strong work ethic is?

Determining work ethic seems a bit arbitrary. How do you know if your team has a good work ethic or a bad one? You might think a good way to find out is to look at how your team uses their time.

In general, the length of the average work day continues to increase in the United States. Some people work strictly from home, while others tag on more work at home after a full day of work elsewhere. Technology has made it easy for us to work more, from anywhere.

Since the average U.S. worker is working longer hours, surely that means the work ethic is growing?

Yet, in Germany, workers clock fewer hours but produce more. Putting in longer hours doesn’t mean you have a better work ethic. It doesn’t even mean you produce more. All it means is it takes you a long time to get something done.

In Germany, there is a culture in which using time for anything but serious work is frowned upon. Sure, management frowns on that here, but in Germany, it’s cultural. Fellow co-workers frown on it, too.

That doesn’t mean one country has a better work ethic, but it does mean that you can’t always use time spent working as an indicator of a good work ethic.

A strong work ethic shows up in how responsible and reliable a person is. It shows up in how well they work with others in the team, and their ability to communicate. In fact, as I go over some of the ways you can develop a strong work ethic, you’ll start to understand what qualities are present in someone with a strong work ethic.

Developing A Strong Work Ethic In Your Team

While it would be great if every team member arrived on your doorstep with a stellar work ethic in place, that’s usually not the case. And, even if each person had what they considered a good work ethic, differences in culture and understanding will mean you have a team harnessed together yet seem to move in different speeds and directions, all thinking they’re doing it right.

You can develop a strong work ethic in your team, and you can develop it so they are all headed in the same direction at the same pace.

Start with the word “ethic.”

People with a strong work ethic have good character. They adhere to good ethics all across the board, not just in their work. It’s almost impossible to be unethical and life and have a good ethic in work. Training can help.

1. Define what you consider ethical.

Not everyone things the same things are right or wrong, and so it’s important that you let your team know what you consider ethical and what you don’t. Remember, every culture has different understandings of what is considered right and wrong.

2. Use scenarios to help the 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.

3. Pay attention to the “whom.”

Ethics is often thought of as the “what” of morality; that is, the proper behavior that is expected. But your team also has to be aware of the “whom” of morality. That means your team has to understand that both they, and others (like customers) are part of a moral situation. They have to see that things that are considered wrong apply to them in their situations, too.

There needs to be empathy for others as well. Basically, good behavior isn’t a mere mechanical list of do’s and don’ts, but comes from understanding the people it can affect and actually caring about the results.

Reinforce the benefits of hard work.

While you don’t want to institutionalize a complex system of bribes and rewards using gimmicky methods, there should be a clear connection between a good work ethic and solid reward.

That might mean that you have a clear promotional path for team members, where they understand they have the chance for promotion or salary increase based on their work. You might use productivity, sales, project completion, and those types of things are a measurement of that ethic.

The flip side of this, of course, is that you don’t want to create a viciously competitive environment where cheating a system to get ahead is more attractive than a good work ethic.

It’s very difficult to keep up a good work ethic when you feel that your job is a dead end or there is no other reward for doing good work other than personal pride. Not every team member is motivated (at least initially) by personal pride; they sometimes need a slight carrot on a stick.

Be careful about generational generalizations.

The common assumption is that some generations are better workers than others. Generation X were slackers, Millennials don’t know what real work is — you’ve heard it before.

The truth is, each person, while part of a generation, is a product of their own unique life experience. Geography, culture, and how they were raised play a bigger role than the generation they are a part of. And, the definitions for how work is best done aren’t the same across generations.

Millennials, for example, have vastly different expectations than the generations before. But does that mean they aren’t good workers? 80% of college and high school students pick up part time work, a percentage that’s higher than in previous generations. Millennials also expect to work more hours every week than previous 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.

Insist on professionalism.

Depending on your business, being professional will vary. But whatever your team is doing — office work or service work — there is a level of professionalism that you can expect.

These are qualities you should definitely have in the employee handbook, and go over in training, but they are also something you need to keep an eye on and help anyone on the team who is struggling to make them a reality.

1. Punctuality.

Be serious about team members showing up on time. There are always moments in life where something happens and it’s acceptable to make an allowance, but you absolutely cannot have someone who isn’t punctual. Arrive on time, don’t leave early. Be there for your shift.

2. Respectful.

Part of a good work ethic is respecting others (co-workers as well as customers) and yourself. Respect is one of those words people tend to put on posters and give a lot of lip service to, but do very little to actually foster in the workplace.

3. Dependable.

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. That’s the bare minimum. But there’s also an aspect of not making promises that won’t be kept.

4. No room for self-centeredness.

Some people (and yes, often in younger generations) have a strong work ethic that is self-centered. What that means is that they do a good job with what they’ve been assigned, but don’t know to look beyond their immediate world of self to see what else can be done. They want to do a job, get it done, and “enjoy life” without considering other work that needs to also be done. Or, they fixate on just getting the job done, not caring if it meets deadlines or other team expectations.

A self-centered work ethic doesn’t mean good work can’t happen, but it is done solely based on “what works for me” and has no place in a professional team.

Learn to spot a faltering work ethic.

Most of us think we have a pretty good work ethic, but there are factors at work we’re not even really aware of that suggest otherwise. It’s important to be able to spot those problem factors in your team and deal with them before they are uncontrollable.

The Portland Trail Blazers sometimes pull players out of practice.

It’s not a disciplinary thing, but because of a perception of effort.

Basically, the team pays attention to how much energy a player has expended, and once it hits a certain level, they are better off pulling them out of practice than having them expend more energy.

When we work through tiredness, we feel like we’ve done a great job, that we accomplished a lot. But sleep deprivation and tiredness often leads to less great work no matter how we feel about that work. So we think we have a great work ethic because we are tired and must have worked hard. We work until exhaustion because that seems to be a marking point that “feels” right, and yet we turn out sloppier work.


When we’re tired we choose tasks and work that aren’t so hard to do. We feel like we get a lot accomplished, but it wasn’t the big jobs, all because we were tired. Is your team getting a lot done that matters, or just checking lots of little tasks off and missing the important things?

What seems like great effort to a team member may simply be a tired team member struggling to do mediocre work, completely unaware of it.

Train your team about building right habits.

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business, stayed on top of bestselling lists for months. It threw open the door, in an accessible way, on how and why we form habits. It also helped readers understand ways they could end bad habits and create good habits.

Much of good work ethic revolves around habits. Good ones.

And foundation of any good habit is doing it consistently for about 30 days.

1. The habit of 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, a complicated mix of work hard, rest, repeat. Someone who isn’t persistent tends to fixate on the breaks, easily distracted with an inability to focus and finish.

Building persistence might be as mundane as removing distractions so a person can focus. An open office plan, with lots of noise and activity, might be causing a person to lack persistence. In an age where work culture sometimes veers more towards fun than work, it may require rethinking how to make the culture at work positive while also making it work-centric.

Building persistence is also a bit like lifting weights. You have to consistently up the amount of work you do before taking a break bit by bit. That means, when a team member is ready to call it quits, ask for five more minutes before taking a break.

2. The do-it-now habit.

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.

But it also knows when the “could be done” work can be ignored when there are other more important things to be doing. Procrastinators are famous for flipping this list, doing the easy and less important work first.

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.

3. The always something to do habit.

Few things are as frustrating as coming into the shop and seeing employees standing around while there are counters to be wiped or tables to be cleared.

The idea that there is always something to do is connected to the “could be done” work mentioned earlier. Help your team understand that when assigned and specific tasks are completed, there is a running list of things that are always needing to be done.

Again, it might take prodding, but a habit of always looking for what can be done is definitely part of a good work ethic.

4. The do it right the first time habit.

Worst case scenario, and you’ll have to punish a worker for doing substandard or sloppy work.

Hopefully, it doesn’t need to go that route.

Doing work right the first time means your team gets more done and wastes less time. It also means they need a certain proficiency, and that requires good training. Once they are trained and have the knowledge and ability–and know what you expect or consider high-quality work–the good work ethic should kick in so that they do their best always.

To be fair, there are moments where personal life or family makes a person’s work tumble temporarily, but in general, it’s not too much to expect your team to do it right the first time.

Put an end to the passive experience.

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” — Thomas Jefferson

Some people see themselves at the mercy of outside forces. There’s good luck, bad luck, karma, or fate. Whatever they call it, they don’t think they are either able to have an effect on what happens in life, nor are they responsible for what happens in life.

Such a person might use phrases or behavior such as:

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

We all use these phrases once in awhile, but someone who really sees themselves at the mercy of others uses them a lot. This creates a lot of problems for your team (not just in regards to work ethic), but it can hamper your efforts to build work ethic.

Quite simply, they don’t see themselves in control or able to make decisions or take action that benefits them, so they don’t. A person with a good work ethic is motivated by the positive return for their work. A person who thinks they are a victim or not in control believes no amount of work will return a positive anything.

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

  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, 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”.

A good work ethic needs responsibility and proactive behavior, not passively letting life pass over them in waves.

What To Do When Team Members Have A Bad Work Ethic

Ideally, when you spot a poor work ethic, you use some of the techniques listed to make it better. But, when that doesn’t seem to help the situation, it’s a good idea to give the rest of the team tools to deal with someone whose bad work ethic is negatively affecting them or their work.

  • 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, the build. 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.

Your team should also be able to come to you and talk about it without fear of reprisal or concern the other employee will be dealt with unfairly. A poor work ethic affects everyone on the team.

When Fixating On Work Ethic Creates Abuse

There is a difference between a strong work ethic and workplace abuse. Abuse tends to happen when time and output are considered the key benchmarks for work ethic.

Here’s when focusing on a work ethic goes awry:

  • Salaried employees feel obligated to put in longer hours even when they are exhausted.
  • Team members are shamed into working harder or taking on more tasks by team members who have higher productivity levels.
  • People-pleasing team members to end up working endless hours or taking on particularly onerous tasks, concerned they’ll be labeled lazy by others (or by management) if they don’t.

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.

How to Develop a Strong Work Ethic Among Your Team