Teaching Good Work Habits

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015).

Good work habits: Self-presentation, timeliness, organization, productivity, quality, follow-through, consistency, and initiative.

Manager: “These are all things we used to take for granted: Taking care of yourself outside of work so you come in on time ready to work; grooming and dressing appropriately; saying “please” and “thank you”; keeping yourself organized and getting your work done consistently. Nobody had to tell me any of that when I was young. In your first job, we would have thought there was something terribly wrong with someone if you had to tell them any of that stuff.”

Gen Zer (second-wave Millennial): “I honestly cannot believe they really care about that stuff! You really care if I come in at 8:15 instead of 8?! You really care if I shave?! You have opinions about what I wear?! One of the partners told me, ‘Don’t come in to my office unless you are prepared to take notes.’ I was like, ‘Don’t even…’ you know? Like, ‘Back off…don’t take yourself so seriously.’”

The Bridge: What You, the Manager, Need to Remember

Basic work habits are matters of “self-management,” which has been a recurring theme in your work nearly since our research first began. That’s because 99 percent of managers I’ve ever met would rather not have to do all the hard work of managing their direct-reports, but instead deal with employees who pretty much manage themselves: “Do everything they are supposed to do when and how they are supposed to do it, on their own, without guidance, direction, or support.” That’s about as ridiculous as the Gen Zers who think self-management means, “Do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want.”

Both of these versions of “self-management” are fantasyland. They are the poles on opposite sides of the soft skills gap.

Today’s young employees tend to see these basic work habits as matters of personal choice or style and often do not see the concrete business reasons for the requirements or preferences of their managers. On the other hand, sometimes managers have strong preferences or requirements for which there is no true business reason. That is the prerogative of the employer. After all, you are paying your employees, not the other way around. But your advice to managers is to choose your battles carefully on these issues. Every requirement (or preference) you impose on employees is one you will have to pay for somehow in the bargain; it is one less element of flexibility you will have to offer in the employment value proposition—or at least it is one less bargaining chip you have.

For the most part, there are very good reasons for following established best practices when it comes to work habits:

  • When employees are unwell, there are increased health-care costs and absenteeism, as well as diminished performance and impact on morale.
  • When employees do not attend to their grooming and attire and manners, they make a negative impression on those with whom they interact.
  • When employees come in late, take long breaks, leave early, and miss deadlines, they add less value and they keep other people waiting.
  • When employees don’t take notes and don’t use checklists and good systems of organization, they lose important information, lose track of what they are doing, and make it harder for others to coordinate with them.
  • When employees don’t pay attention to detail, they make more mistakes, causing diminished quality and requiring rework.
  • When employees cannot be counted on to follow through, projects are left unfinished, and others are distracted and inconvenienced by having to remind them.
  • When employees do not take initiative, opportunities are missed, and problems go unsolved.

These are all very strong business reasons. But not all of them apply to all people in all jobs. Before you choose to impose a requirement or preference, at least ask yourself: What are the business reasons? And what is the cost to you in terms of your flexibility in sweetening your employment proposition to your employees? What really matters, in your case, with your employees:

  • When it comes to employee wellness
  • When it comes to employee self-presentation
  • When it comes to timeliness and employee work schedules
  • When it comes to meeting goals and deadlines
  • When it comes to using systems to stay organized
  • When it comes to employees paying attention to details
  • When it comes to follow-through
  • When it comes to taking initiative

What really matters? My karate teacher, Frank Gorman, likes to say, “We are all products of our habits. Good habits? Bad habits? That is your choice.”

What are you really prepared to require? What strong preferences are you prepared to impose? If they really matter, they are worth teaching.

Make Them Aware/Make Them Care

This is the message I recommend managers deliver when they are trying to convince their young employees to care about developing good work habits:

“Here’s why you should care about learning best practices and building better work habits: These basic work habits might seem like matters of personal style or preference. But, in fact, there are strong business reasons for these requirements. How you present yourself and conduct yourself at work has a big impact on your performance and on all of those with whom you interact. Perhaps more to the point: It has a huge impact on your reputation at work.

Not following good work habits with consistency makes you seem younger and less mature. It gives some managers second thoughts about trusting you with important work. If you want to be taken seriously in the workplace, your best bet is to learn best practices and develop good work habits. People will perceive you as being more professional. That will be very much to your benefit, both here and anywhere else you work.

Here is the big challenge. What makes this hard is that habits are habits for a reason. Habits feel good. Habits feel right. Even if you can see the logic for a different set of behaviors that will have better results, it is very hard to break one habit and create a new one. Research shows that it takes several weeks of consistent practice of a new set of behaviors to form a new habit. It takes even longer for a new habit to become entrenched. But remember, human beings are not just creatures of habit. We are products of our habits. Will you be the product of good habits or bad habits? That is your choice.”

So what exactly are “good work habits”? Who’s to say? Here are the “good work habits” we focus on in our career seminars for young rising stars:

  • Wellness: Maintaining a healthy body, mind, and spirit/mood.
  • Self-presentation: Controlling one’s grooming, attire, and manners—given the social/cultural situation at hand—so as to make a positive impression on others.
  • Timeliness: Arriving early, staying late, and taking short breaks. Meeting or beating schedules and deadlines.
  • Productivity: Working at a fast pace without significant interruptions.
  • Organization: Using proven systems for documentation and tracking—note-taking, project plans, checklists, and filing.
  • Attention to detail: Following instructions, standard operating procedures, specifications, and staying focused and mindful in performing tasks and responsibilities.
  • Follow-through and consistency: Fulfilling one’s commitments and finishing what one starts.
  • Initiative: Self-starting. Taking productive action without explicit direction. Going above and beyond; the extra mile.

When you take the time to help employees build themselves up with old-fashioned good work habits, they get better and better. Just think of the impact you could have on any employee by helping him or her get better when it comes to any of these habits—wellness, self-presentation, timeliness, organization, productivity, quality, follow-through, consistency, and initiative. Make them aware. Make them care. They’ll get better and better. You’ll be so glad. And they’ll be ever grateful. At least they should be!

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015). For more information, visit http://www.amazon.com/Bridging-Soft-Skills-Gap-Missing/dp/1118725646

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014); and Bridging the Skills Gap (2015). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com

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