Guest Blogger: Dr. Gary Fenton
Leaders and supervisors frequently complain about the poor work ethic of those they lead or supervise. Complaining about the younger generation’s lack of intensity in the workplace effort to some extent is an inherited habit as every generation has done it. As Millennials are now hitting the work force we hear the same complaints that we did when Gen Xers and Boomers made entry into world of work and decision making. Is it possible to create a healthy work environment in an organization and if so how do you accomplish it?
Telling people to work hard is much different than creating an environment that empowers people to give their best effort. The model for telling people to work hard usually involves three steps but not necessarily in this order.
- Telling people what to do
- Providing in inspirational pep-talk
- Offer the option of a carrot on stick or a foot to their backside.
So, you have tried that and how did it work?
Below is another three-step process that you may want to try. The first step, however, is by far the most important and if you are able to do it well, steps two and three may occur on their own.
1. Focus on explaining the “why” before you invest too much time and energy explaining the “what.” The “why” is where we find meaning in what we do and if there is no purpose or if the purpose is ill defined, there is no passion.
While my father continually told me to work hard and was an example for me, I didn’t really value giving a great effort when an average effort could get me by. An employer during high school junior and senior years in high school gave me the foundation of a healthy work ethic.
I worked after school and all day on Saturday in a small town grocery store. On my first day at 5 pm the owner, Glen Wilson, asked me to go out to the parking lot as it was filled shoppers.
He said, “These people have worked very hard today at the shoe factory, the mill, or at the printing company and when they get home they will fix dinner, clean house, mow their lawn or fix something that is broken. They are already tired and many of them are barely providing for their families. By working hard, you are helping them to feed their families at reasonable price and get home quickly. When you carelessly drop a jar of ketchup or break a sack of sugar, then we recover the cost with higher prices. When you are discourteous you impact their attitude when arrive at home. We want them to have the best food at the lowest cost and to help them go to their families with a good attitude, and to do it in a way that allow us to make a living. You are helping families have a better life and you are building a better Aurora, Missouri, as well. And, as a side benefit, you are making some money that will help you go to college.”
Mr. Wilson concluded by saying, “Don’t ask me what you are supposed to doing, instead ask what needs to be done. To have a job is simply to have something to do. To work is to meet a need and I hope you never see this as a job but instead as a place to meet needs.”
This was a defining moment in my life. Although future employees did not always articulate the “why” as well, Mr. Wilson taught me how to find it. Not all work is interesting but all work can be meaningful if done to help others and provide the good of the community. Jesus told us that servanthood was the key to life and He was not just giving us an arbitrary command but was teaching us a life-principle—built into the economy of the universe. The cosmic “why” of all work is serving others.
Organizations that build into their systems ways to keep the “why” in front of their employees are providing an environment that creates passion. Passion is the result of knowing why you do what you do. I have known of a bank that required every employee including the tellers, custodians and bank officers to every six months visit at least one commercial customer in their work place. You will not be surprised to know that the bank was profitable and had very little employee turnover. I also know of a university that sends a weekly e-mail to all employees describing how recent graduates are changing the world as way of keeping their staff aware of the why.
2. Reward habitual actions as much as you do heroic actions. Generally the sales person who closes the big deal or who makes the grumpy customer happy enough to send a complimentary e-mail get all the bells and whistles, while methodical Mike who just does his job every day and gets nothing other than an occasional, “Thanks, see you tomorrow.” If you build a system that rewards the habits as well as the heroic acts of service, you will see that the habits usually have more to do with productivity than occasional heroic actions.
3. Encourage and reward attempting the difficult and not just accomplishing the difficult. Boredom is one reason that people grow lackadaisical and careless. Leaders and supervisors have to model this because it is better “caught than taught.” This requires the leaders and supervisors to announce in advance their attempts to do the difficult and share the result, even if their attempts failed.
Don’t attempt steps two and three until you have invested deeply in step one. And why is that? Because “why” is a heart issue and a good work ethic begins with the right attitude!
Gary Fenton is in his second career and now serves as a Senior Advancement Officer for Samford University in Birmingham, AL after retiring as Senior Pastor of the 7800 member Dawson Memorial Baptist Church where he served 25 years. Fenton speaks frequently on leadership and character to companies, civic organization, non-profits and churches. He also is the founder of a website dedicated to building of character in adults www.characterpath.com and is the author of three book including Good for Goodness Sake published by New Hope and participated Leadership Alabama 2002 and Leadership Birmingham 2008. Fenton can be contacted through email firstname.lastname@example.org and phone ( 205)726-4676 as well as followed on twitter @garyfenton07.