We all appreciated your relentless stimulation and the really important points you drove home to our group.
Hon. George P. Shultz, Secretary of State (1982-1989), United States of America

Teaching Good Work Habits

Teaching Good Work Habits: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent

Basic work habits –like timeliness– are matters of “self-management,” which has been a recurring theme in your work nearly since our research first began. That’s because 99% 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 that 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 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 interrogate 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?

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

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