How to be an employee: Working 101
William A. Sterling, P.E.
Sterling & Associates
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
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
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:
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:
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:
If you are to succeed, you must accept the responsibility for that success. Accepting that responsibility means:
More specifically, your individual success at work will most likely depend on the following:
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.