Work Ethic is Important Because It's a Choice

Work Ethic is Important Because It’s a Choice

Work Ethic interests everybody, me included, from home-maker to heads of institutions, and from workers to CEOs. It was the subject of my talk. I was invited by Thursday Truth Seekers, a group of medical professionals, to speak at their event recently. Here is the full account and I begin with two short stories.

When I joined Asian Paints in 1975, it was a small company then with only one plant in Mumbai, and my office was near the gate as I was in charge of Time Office. Every employee came to Time office and punch his attendance card. One of the employees, Shankar Jyoti Kolekar, always arrived half an hour before start of the shift. He would go to the shop floor, change in to uniform and take charge of work from the employee working in the previous shift. Shankar’s conduct was exemplary and he was a highly respected employee.

Much later I learnt the word which captured why he was so respected: ‘Work Ethic.’

I also remember Napoleon’s story. A soldier in Napoleon’s army complained to him that his sword was one-half a foot shorter than those of other soldiers. ‘How can I fight?’ he asked. ‘Take a step half a foot ahead of others,’ Napoleon answered. We will refer to this story later.  

The topic of discussion today is ‘Work Ethic and Leaders’. And I would like to remind all the medical professionals that they are leaders. It is immaterial whether or not you have a team of people working with you. You can be a thought leader like Dr. Himmatrao Bavaskar. He invented a cure for scorpion stings. But you can’t escape being a leader.

And that is why work ethic matters to us personally as well as in our role as a leader.

Ethic and Ethics are two different words with different meanings. It is beautifully explained in a book by Eric Chester, He says, ‘Ethics means “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad”. Essentially, ethics involves knowing right from wrong. Ethic means “a theory or system of moral values” or “a guiding philosophy.” Work Ethic is knowing the right thing to do, and then doing it.’

So let us remember this: Work Ethic is knowing the right thing to do, and then doing it. Isn’t that a hallmark of a good leader?

How does a leader influence his team members?

How does a leader influence his followers to improve their work ethic? The answer is well known but we find that it is applied wrongly at home as well as at work. Being a role model exerts highest level of influence. If we are not a role model then no amount of lecturing, and mentoring will work. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.” People will always remember your character and interpret your words.

Source: Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

But we usually ‘lecture’ our team members. That’s where we go wrong. It does not work. The message is clear that we have to raise our standards of behaviour and lead by example. Then comes mentoring team members, and it will be received well.

Moving Team to High Work Ethic Level

As we have seen ‘Work Ethic is knowing the right thing to do, and then doing it.’ So, there are two aspects – first, we must know what is the right thing to do. This is ‘Cognizance.’ Second, we must do it. This is ‘Compliance.’

Let me present this Cognizance – Compliance matrix or Work Ethic matrix. Some of us know the right thing to do and they do it too. Such people fall in ‘Valued’ category for obvious reasons.

Then we have some people who do not know the right thing to do, but they take some action and it accidentally proves to be right. These people are called ‘Lucky’.

We have some people who know what the right thing to do is, but they won’t do it. They take short cuts, or flout the right way of doing it. They are called ‘Cheaters’.

And lastly, we have some people who do not know what the right thing to do it, and they also do not take any action. They are called ‘Idle’.

This is a broad categorization to help us understand the people. But we have to remember that people are not apples or lemons to be placed permanently in one category. All of us move from one to another category depending on situation and our will to act.

There are two benefits of this matrix. First, it helps to reflect where we are in a given situation. A candid and open reflection of our thoughts, I mean cognizance, and our action, I mean compliance, with a mentor helps us grow.

The second benefit is that we can recognize where our team members are placed and mentor them to move to ‘Valued’ category. They ought to know what was the right thing to do, and right action too. Increasing awareness will help us, as leaders, to move them to the Valued quadrant.

And this is precisely what Napoleon did when he said, ‘Take step half a foot ahead of others.’ And Shankar Jyoti Kolekar, the employee in Asian Paints was in the quadrant ‘Valued’ for most of the time. That is why he earned his respect from everyone.

I have another true story to share. Muktangan which is a drug de-addiction center was established by Dr Anil Awchat. I met there a young man and got in a conversation with him. It was obvious that he was a respected person in Muktangan going by the way everybody related to him. He told me that he was an ex-convict, and that he did drugs and alcohol too. In other words, he was a ‘Cheater’ because he knew what was the right thing to do but did not do it. But Muktangan reformed him and he graduated in Arts while working for Muktangan. He was given a responsible position in Muktangan which he was doing well and was earning respect for it. Such a beautiful real-life story of someone moving from Cheater to Valued.

Improve Reetee and Neetee

And it speaks of tremendous influence Dr Anil Awchat had on him. Yet, that is not the complete picture. We in India tend to place a very high value on personal action. No doubt it is important, but we often fail to recognize that a system needs to be created for moving people to the Valued quadrant. The ‘episodic’ is important, but equally important is the ‘systemic’ part. Dr Anil Awchat’s actions were well supported by Muktangan which was the systemic part.

In other words, we have to improve Reetee (Method or way of doing things) and Neetee (Deciding what is right and wrong). When we improve Reetee (Method or Way of doing things) we get pragatee or progress. When we improve Neetee (Deciding what is right and wrong) we find Unnatee which is development or evolving to a higher level.

Muktangan decided that to cure addiction, and help addicts resume normal life style. They developed methodologies for their mission.

In the world of medical professionals, improvement of Reetee has given people longer life and a better quality of life. My father suffered a massive heart attack in 1978. He was hospitalized for long time. It took him good time to resume normal life. I suffered a massive heart attack in 2013, so it was thirty-five years later, the doctor put two stents, and discharged me in three days. I resumed my normal life style within a short time. All this progress happened because of improvement of Reetee.

Hospitals too have their stories of improving reetee or methods. And they keep improving the methods. This is why Henrik Kinberg says, ‘The important thing is not your process. The important thing is your process for improving your process.’

The impact of Japanese management practices, particularly, Kaizen on industry can’t be underestimated. Kaizen means continuous improvement. Institutions in all fields have used it for big gains in their process improvements.

Improving Reetee has the associated dilemma of cost versus excellence. The leader understands that upgrading methods will come at a cost, sometimes prohibitive. He has to find a way of constantly upgrading methods or retee. Companies have spent thousands of dollars in getting certifications when they made the choice of improving methods.

Speaking of Neetee, we noticed several great examples during Covid pandemic. But let me mention an old one. In late seventies I visited Johnson & Johnson factory in Mulund and visited their creche. It was the dream of a creche. J&J imported toys to make sure that children do not get injured while playing with them. They painted the creche with light pink colour, a favourite colour of children. And the creche was airconditioned! In late seventies air conditioned offices were rare, and here I saw a creche air conditioned!

Contrast this with what ladies told me recently and I have recorded it in my blog Who Worries About Working Women in Corona Times. One woman worker said, “Overcrowded creche in our factory accommodated forty children in seven hundred square feet area, and four children were fed from one dish!

This should highlight the impact of Neetee and lack of it has on people’s lives. And it is precisely for this reason that a leader ought to facilitate a reflective discussion on a value dilemma issue or a critical incident. Awareness and adherence to values is always higher when team members have a collective reflection. We rarely see this practice in action. Being defensive kills an opportunity to raise the standard of ‘Neetee.’ We see this in all the Government actions where nobody believes in the official version of a critical incident.

Admittedly it is not easy to practice Neetee at a high level. Leaders have to have courage of conviction. Bajaj Auto in 2007 and Racold in 2018 threw out their employees on the street, but great leaders like Govindbhai Dholakia refused to lay-off workers during the economic downturn. Tatas handled the fallout of the terrorist attack on Taj Hotel courageously and with empathy. You can restrict your action only to compliance with law and stay mediocre. Alternatively, like Tatas, you can choose to follow your professed values and give the organization a distinctive and laudable character. Leaders, thus, face a dilemma of bare minimum compliance or mediocrity versus acquiring a distinctive and respected character. They must make their choice!

To sum up, Work Ethic is knowing the right thing to do, and then doing it. And we need personal touch as well as systems to employ work ethic meaningfully as well as improving it continuously. And the most important insight on work ethic comes from Mike Rowe. He said, “Work ethic is important because, unlike intelligence, athleticism, charisma, or any other natural attribute, it’s a choice.” Isn’t that a message for us?

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” **** “Aroehan: “No Malnutrition Deaths, No Child ‘Out of School’, 50% migration reduction.”