Word ETHICS with blocks

Is work ethic innate or moulded through experience?

Posted on: August 14, 2023

Much has been said about the differences in work ethic and work value that exist between generational groups. Stereotypes generally lead one to believe particular ideas about each generation in the workplace.

  • The Silent Generation, born between 1925–1945 and named after the ‘be seen and not heard’ proverb, are value-oriented, loyal and disciplined for example.
  • Baby Boomers, born between 1946–1964, are self-sufficient, committed and competitive – possibly the result of the sheer volume of them.
  • Generation X, born between 1966–1980, are logical, resourceful problem-solvers who straddle the non-digital and digital worlds.
  • Millennials (Generation Y), born approximately between 1980–1995, are confident, curious ‘digital natives’ – also described as ‘lazy’ and questioning of authority by the media, millennials currently make up the largest working demographic.
  • Gen Z (also known as iGen), whose generational beginnings are contested as starting anywhere from 1993 to 2000, are ambitious, confident and have never known a world without technology and the Internet.

Dr Alexis Abramson, an expert in ‘generational cohorts’, states that defining cohorts is important as, “when you are born affects your attitudes, perceptions and values.” These generational differences are not insignificant: this is the first time in history five different generations have worked alongside each other. Additionally, 60% of workers stated that they have experienced intergenerational conflict in the workplace.

What do these differences mean for individuals’ work ethics? Are there ways to address a ‘bad’ work ethic? And, what can business psychologists and team leaders do to address these conflicts?

What is work ethic?

Work ethic refers to the personal set of values, standards and ideologies that determine how an individual approaches their work. It has a direct influence on how an employee approaches their daily tasks and responsibilities– someone with a ‘strong’ work ethic is likely to be driven by the commitment, passion or enjoyment they have for the work they do.

There are a number of characteristics that go hand-in-hand with a good work ethic:

  • dependability
  • hard-working
  • high-quality output
  • strong time management
  • positive attitude
  • professionalism
  • supportive of co-workers and teamwork
  • a healthy sense of competition
  • tendency to go ‘over and above’ what is asked of them
  • driven to complete work goals.

In contrast, a poor work ethic is associated with a number of undesirable characteristics:

  • negativity
  • procrastination
  • passiveness
  • poor time management
  • toxicity
  • inefficiency
  • poor-quality output
  • disregard for the job or work
  • unprofessionalism
  • lack of responsibility.

A strong work ethic, however, does not equate to a poor work-life balance. It does necessarily mean working full-time, working long hours and volunteering for extra responsibilities in an employee’s free time. It’s more about how they work in the time available, and possessing the values and behaviours that are aligned with ethical principles in the workplace.

And great work values pay off: employees with strong work ethics increase productivity, improve service value, model desired professional behaviours to others, and help establish a balanced, respectable work environment.

Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ explores the link between religion – specifically, in this context, Calvinism – and modern economic and capitalist conditions. A belief held by certain previous generations that faith and favour were linked to business and profit likely laid the foundations of how work ethic has been formed and perceived over the years.

Is work ethic something people are born with?

While it’s often closely linked to an individual’s professional – and personal – success, possessing a great work ethic is more complex than simply being born with one.

Research suggests both nature and nurture play key roles. Genetic factors and individual predispositions and interests can play a role in how our work ethic presents in later life, much like a natural talent for learning languages, a preference for sports, or having a good sense of humour. Some people are just more interested in, and inclined to, assign greater value to work – and engaging in hard work – than others.

This is however, a smaller part of the greater whole. Everything people experience from early childhood – from role models, interactions with others and home-based chores, to group projects in high school and work experience opportunities – influences their work values and perspectives. The many learning opportunities that impact work ethic development in children and young people are both voluntary and involuntary.

Is it possible to change your work ethic?

There is much research to suggest work ethic is a more valuable determinant of long-term success in the workplace – for example, job success, career advancement and new opportunities – than raw or ‘natural’ talent for a role or occupation, and it is certainly possible for someone to change their work ethic over a certain period of time.

So, how does one change their work ethic? And, what can a manager do to support their team to develop healthy business ethics?

  1. Cultivate a work environment that encourages timeliness, honesty, integrity and trust, professionalism, collaboration, personal accountability and initiative, high-quality work and other key values.
  2. Lead by example, modelling desirable values, behaviours and attitudes.
  3. Make use of coaching, mentoring and other learning experiences and activities to bridge skills gaps (for example, presenting in meetings, or use of technology and social media tools).
  4. Develop a shared sense of purpose that bridges generational divides.
  5. Implement flexible working and hybrid working that plays to employee strengths and preferences and tackles barriers to working.
  6. Celebrate differences and be mindful that generational cohorts do not provide a one-size-fits-all framework – what work ethic means to someone of a certain generation may look different to someone else, and there may be strengths in both.

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