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How to Develop Work Ethic [in children + teams]

The afternoon felt long and the week felt longer. Cultural and political uncertainty had exhausted most of us and a relaxing weekend on the horizon was exactly what we needed. As we pulled down the driveway my 5 and 7 year old, whose energy remained strong, eagerly asked if they could sell popcorn to neighbors driving by to make money.

You know that feeling, when everything in you sees all the reasons to say "no"?

But then something, deeper in you, pauses long enough to squint to see the bigger picture.

In the moment I really wanted to relax and watch a movie, but in the long run I want my kiddos to have a strong work ethic.

Maybe for you the moment is not around selling popcorn, but it is the sweet offer of your 4 year old to wash the dishes, and you know the mess will be more than the help.

Or perhaps it is your child asking to wash your car for money.

Or to cook a special treat for everyone and you can already imagine the broken eggs and scattered flour and sugar on the floor.

These moments are rarely convenient and often messy, but it makes you wonder what the valuable lessons they learn could be when we lean in and choose "yes".

Some of you reading this relate less to children at home, but more to employees on your teams. You have eager employees, wanting to venture out and try something new, but you know it will take your oversight, attention and guidance for it to be successful. And you have enough on your plate to do that you want to give a quick "no".

There are certainly times to say "no" - having wise boundaries, clear priorities, protecting your children or team at work from irreversible failure or danger. All important reason to say "no" when someone offers to help or step out into a challenge.

But what about the times we can lean in and choose "yes"?

What does saying "yes" create in the long run for that person or group?

Leaning into the natural interests of others enables them to learn and grow, using their natural curiosity and problem solving skills.

How can we as parents and leaders of teams help develop work ethic?

After years of learning from mentors, observing other leaders and being aware of my personal experiences, I have compiled 4 elements they have shared on how to develop work ethic in those around us.

1. Set priorities

For families: What are the top priorities of your family? Homework, dishes, trash, clean room, family dinner...what are the 3 or 4 most important priorities and how do you ensure they are done first?

In our family, we adopted a rule to do what you need to do so you can do what you want to do.

This creates an element of freedom while also keeping priorities in line. If chores are a priority, then have a family standard that play time comes after they are complete.

Use opportunities to help connect the habits of today with their goals for later in life.

For teams: What are the top priorities of your organization and therefore your team? Clarity is key for all to know what we are working toward and how our individual roles contribute. Because most people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, knowing your role is important increases engagement and focused, energetic work.

Talk about the key priorities often ensure teammates see how their work aligns to organizational priorities.

2. Communicate clear expectations

What is the specific outcome we need and expect?

For families: Trash to be taken the curb on Wednesday night before bedtime. Homework to be complete and in the folder by Thursday at 5p. Bed to be made before school each day. If you make a mess, you clean it up. Floor is to be picked up by Sunday evening before dinner at 6p.

Having clear expectations is important for all of us to thrive. Nothing catches us by surprise and we understand the trade offs and learn how to prioritize time.

Also, the more the clear the expectation, the more we can sit back and allow creativity to shine...more about that in the next point of "give autonomy".

Using tools like chore charts, task lists and visible reminders help to take the pressure off parents to be the continual reminder for kiddos to stay on task.

For teams: Documents to be accurate and in a specific form, customers to be greeted with a specific greeting, deadlines to be met, meetings to be facilitated in a certain fashion.

Communicating clear expectations allows everyone to stay on the same team and work together for a common goal, while also creating space and freedom for how something gets done.

Both at home and at work, when our expectations are clear we create safety and teamwork around us...while simultaneously taking ourselves out of the seat of continually being the "bad guy" harping on everyone to act differently.

If we are clear on the expectation then they have freedom to create the execution.

3. Give Autonomy

When our expectations are clear, kiddos can use their curiosity and creativity to decide how and when they are going to accomplish the work.

Now, for all of the micromanaging leaders and parents out there, this means you need to take a step back and give some breathing room. Ownership comes when they have a say in how and when it is done.

So, focus your time and attention on setting clear expectations and then step back and let them own it.

This is equally true at work as it is at home.

We will take responsibility for the things we have helped author. When a boss tells us exactly how to do something and removes the chance for creativity, they also remove the opportunity for ownership. When we feel ownership for something we will work harder, longer and with more creativity than if we are given specific orders.

And even more than the increase in how hard and long they work and how creative they contribute to the solution, the reality is that we as the parents or leaders do not have all the best solutions.

Let me repeat that again in another way in case you really need to hear it today - you do not have all of the best solutions.

Most of the time, our kids are way more creative than we are (remember they haven't been told to think inside the box or color in the lines yet) and our front line employees see the problem most clearly and are able to come up with scrappy solutions that will be most effective.

When we give autonomy we gain effectiveness.

You have heard QxA= E, right?

The quality of an idea multiplied by the acceptance of an idea equals the effectiveness of an idea.

The more we define the solutions the less acceptance our teams or children may take in the execution of it.

So, when we give autonomy we increase the acceptance of our children or teams executing and ultimately we gain effectiveness.

4. Allow natural consequences

He cringed every time he had to touch dirty dishes...but then again who doesn't? Our family deal was that on your week for dishes you have to keep the sink empty. So if a load is washing the dirty dishes will pile up and then you are responsible to unload the clean and then load up all the stacked and nasty dirty dishes.

Knowing that, he would run the load of dishes at bedtime and get up 10 minutes early to unload them and gently remind everyone at breakfast that the dishwasher could be loaded with dirty dishes.

Natural consequences come in all shapes and sizes and the teach and guide us more than any text book ever could.

The trouble is that many of us as parents and leaders want to jump in and save our kids and teams from the natural consequences that they need most.

Our hearts and intentions are good, we want to protect or possibly we want to reduce fussing and complaining, so we step in and in the process we lose the lesson.

Natural consequences can look like: missing out because you weren't prepared, losing a privilege because you didn't get something done, trying something new and finding it doesn't work and in the process recognizing failure is the path to some of the greatest innovations, under performing because you didn't practice...

These are not results to be shameful of, but rather they are teachers to give us motivation to prepare, practice and prioritize better next time.

So what is it for you that needs your attention as a parent or leader?

  1. Set priorities

  2. Communicate clear expectations

  3. Give autonomy

  4. Allow natural consequences

For each of us it is different and can look different in various seasons. But if you want your children and your teams to shine and thrive, be sure you aren't the one preventing their growth.


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