How to be an employee: Working 101

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Sterling & Associates
Greeley, Colorado
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

"If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or as Beethoven composed, or as Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven will pause to say: 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'" - Dr. Martin Luther King

Employee engagement
There are many books written about leadership and management, but very few are written about followers—those workers that actually make things happen. This discussion is about those workers and how to help them perform better in their jobs. Unfortunately, only a handful of people reach their full potential in the workplace. This is not for lack of effort or potential. It's the lack of access to the best information and the key tools. It's about attitude! It's about being the best at what you do.

Organizations need to be rethinking where they place their emphasis on employee training. They have to understand that the key to boosting productivity lies in the development of better workers, and as Fredrick Hertzberg concluded, the key to worker productivity lies not with their supervisors, but within the workers themselves.

Research by the Gallup Organization shows that only 29% of workers are truly engaged at work (that is, they display passion for and feel connected to the organization). Most of the workers do only the necessary minimum required of them.

By contrast, 71% are disengaged (they essentially sleepwalk through the day, meeting only your basic expectations, or in the worst case, they're actively working to undermine your organization's mission and performance). The 71% show up on time, do just what is expected, no more or no less, and leave on time. Far from bringing their whole selves to work, they bring what they must, and no more. Do the math: 29% are engaged, but you pay them all!

On the other hand, the research shows that work groups that display high levels of employee engagement produce a 44% higher-than-average level of employee retention rate, a 56% higher-than-average level of customer service, a 50% higher-than-average safety level and a 50% higher-than-average rate of productivity.

Whether you believe all of the study results, or that they seem not to fit your organization, the fact is that worker disengagement is present in all organizations to some extent and higher than you might think.

The people who work for you, whether few or many, are capable of doing much more to advance the goals of your organization. As a matter of fact, most of them would like to do more than they are doing, contribute more and make a greater difference. No kidding! For the most part, human beings carry around an unspoken yearning to get to the end of their workday—not to mention their work life—feeling that it was actually worth it and that they made a difference.

"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather a skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, 'Wow, what a ride.'" - Anonymous

Job fulfillment
Employees who find fulfillment in their jobs are performing their work with more enthusiasm, passion and attention to quality than their counterparts who do not, mostly because they develop a sense of ownership and pride in what they are doing. That means they'll arrive earlier, stay later, pitch in outside their areas of responsibility, and look for ways to improve their performance, all without being asked.

Simply stated, employees hang onto fulfilling jobs as long as they can, mostly because they know that their chances of finding another are rather slim. Employees often fail to find fulfillment in their work because they place too much emphasis on maximizing compensation or choosing the right career. Are these irrelevant? Of course not. Even if you love what you do, if you can't feed your family or earn a livable wage, you have a problem on your hands. And if you're meant to be a carpenter and you find yourself sitting behind a desk doing accounting, then your ceiling on job fulfillment is going to be low.

Patrick Lencioni, in The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, indicates there are three basic reasons for job dissatisfaction: Anonymity, Irrelevance and Immeasurement:

  • Anonymity: People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known. All human beings need to be understood and appreciated for their unique qualities by someone in a position of authority. People who see themselves as invisible or anonymous cannot love their jobs, no matter what they are doing.

  • Irrelevance: Everyone needs to know that their job matters, to someone. Anyone. Without seeing a connection between the work and the satisfaction of another person or group of people, an employee simply will not find lasting fulfillment. Even the most cynical employees need to know that their work matters to someone—even if it's just the boss.

  • Immeasurement: Employees need to be able to gauge their progress and level of contribution for themselves. They cannot be fulfilled in their work if their success depends on the opinions or whims of another person, no matter how benevolent that person may be. Without a tangible means for assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates as people see themselves as unable to control their own fate. Employees who can measure their own progress or contribution are going to develop a greater sense of personal responsibility and satisfaction than those who cannot.

What is work all about?
William Byham said, "Should work just be about earning a wage? Isn't there more to life than money? We spend a huge portion of our lives at work. Why shouldn't that time be traded for more than just bucks and benefits? Why shouldn't work also be satisfying? Shouldn't we also find a sense of meaning and fulfillment on the job? Why can't we look forward to going to work with as much anticipation as we look forward to weekends, holidays, and vacations?"

Do you think of work as a means to better yourself or as a burden or chore, something that you do only because you have to? This is an important question because what you think of it will, to a great extent, determine how well you do at it. Evidence shows that people who like what they're doing do it well, whereas people who don't like what they are doing do it poorly. There is obviously an important connection between job performance and job satisfaction.

Your job should be more than just earning wages and benefits. It should be about:

  • Building character, self-confidence and self-esteem.

  • Having a sense of accomplishment and feeling satisfied. "The reward of a thing well done," said Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is to have done it."

  • Feeling good physically and mentally. As John Wanamaker noted, "The healthiest and happiest people in the world are those privileged to work a full business day."

  • Providing service to your fellow man. Few things in life bring you greater satisfaction than doing your job well, especially when it is in service to others.

  • Finding an identity and purpose in your life. Who are you? What do you do for a living? You are much more than what you do, but what you do is so much of who you are.

  • Having the opportunity to socialize, to meet new people and make new friends, or to develop contacts.

  • Learning new skills and developing new work habits, all of which will serve you throughout your life.

  • Fulfilling your need to work. Hans Selye, the foremost researcher on stress, concluded that "Work is a biological necessity."

  • Having something to do. A French proverb tells us that "Work relieves us from three great evils—boredom, vice and wants."

  • Freedom, to do what you want to do, to get what you want to have, to be what you want to be, to go where you want to go, with or without anyone's help.

That's what work is all about!

How to be more successful and enjoy your work more
What is success at work? How do you know when you have achieved it? What does success mean to you? Why should that matter? It matters what you think because how you define success will help determine whether or not you achieve it. Success at work to me means:

  • Having a job.
  • Doing it well.
  • Getting satisfaction from it.

If you are to succeed, you must accept the responsibility for that success. Accepting that responsibility means:

  • Setting goals/making plans.
  • Taking the initiative/don't wait to be told.
  • Making good choices/use good judgment.
  • Making no excuses.
  • Admitting your mistakes.
  • Making your own decisions.
  • Solving your own problems.

More specifically, your individual success at work will most likely depend on the following:

  • Have some self-respect. Take care of your health and your appearance.

  • Have respect for others. Don't hold yourself up as being better than anyone else.

  • Do your fair share. Don't be looking for ways to get out of work, leaving your coworkers to pick up the slack.

  • Be honest and trustworthy. Keep in confidence what is brought to you in confidence.

  • Keep your promises. Do what you say you will do.

  • Be reliable. Come to work and come on time.

  • Do the right things. Do the right thing rather than taking the easy way out.

  • Don't be a complainer. Complainers spend more time complaining than they spend working.

  • Don't whine when someone does well or brag when you do well. When people do well, be happy for them; when you do well, be humble.

  • Don't gossip. When you gossip, people start assuming that you're guilty by association.

  • Learn to say "NO." If you're truly busy learn to say no without being rude or arbitrary; they may not like it, but they will respect you for it.

  • Be more critical of yourself and less critical of others. When you're critical of yourself, it makes you a better person; when you criticize others, it makes them feel worse.

  • Know what you're doing and do it well. Learn your responsibilities, understand your responsibilities and do your job well.

  • Be willing to help. Help your coworkers when they need help, whether they ask for it or not, and whether they appreciate it or not.

  • Listen carefully. A good listener tries to understand thoroughly what the other person is saying.

  • Make things happen. It's been said that there are three kinds of people in this world—those who make things happen, those who watch what happens, and those who wonder what happened. Which one are you?

Being successful is not about what you can get away with, but about what you can get done and how well you can do it; it's not about being satisfied with doing as little as you can, but about being willing to do as much as you can.

On the road to success, you will face adversity. At times you may feel like giving up, like you can't take it anymore, like there is no use in trying. All successful people have faced it; they overcame it and became stronger by it. The road to success is always under construction.

"No man on earth is so happy as the man who loves his work and goes home at night with a contented heart because of a good day's work well done." - John Wanamaker

Doing your job as expected demonstrates dependability. Doing your job better than expected demonstrates commitment. Commitment also means that you feel and act with a sense of dedication to the organization. Commitment shows that you are focused on achieving your duties and fulfilling your responsibilities to the best of your abilities. Although commitment comes from within and represents an attitude and desire to meet your obligations, it is clearly demonstrated by your actions. Remember: The best job you will ever have is the one you have now. So make it count!

"You may fool the whole world down the pathway of life and get pats on your back as you pass, but your final reward will be heartaches and tears if you cheated the man in the looking glass." - Dale Winfrow


  1. Ten Thousand Horses, John Stahl-Wert/Ken Jennings
  2. The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, Patrick Lencioni
  3. Working 101, Mike Jacobs (most of the material for this article was taken from this book)

William Sterling, a past APWA Top Ten Public Works Leader of the Year and a former member of the Bylaws and Rules Committee, can be reached at