ATD Blog

Teaching Good Work Habits

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Good Work Habits: Self-Presentation, Timeliness, Organization, Productivity, Quality, Follow-Through, Consistency, Initiative

Basic work habits are matters of self-management, which has been a recurring theme in work nearly since our research first began. That’s because most of the managers I’ve ever met would rather not have to do all the hard work of managing their direct reports, but instead deal with employees who pretty much manage themselves. They seem to say, “Do everything you are supposed to do when and how you are supposed to do it, on your own, without guidance, direction, or support.” That’s about as ridiculous as the employees who think that self-management means, “Do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want.”

Both versions of self-management are fantasy land. They are the poles on opposite sides of the soft skills gap.


Today’s young employees tend to see these basic work habits as matters of personal choice or style and often do not see the concrete business reasons for the requirements or preferences of their managers. On the other hand, sometimes managers have strong preferences or requirements for which there is no true business reason. That is the prerogative of the employer. After all, you are paying your employees, not the other way around. But you should advise managers to choose their battles carefully on these issues. Every requirement (or preference) you impose on employees is one you will have to pay for somehow in the bargain; it is one less element of flexibility you will have to offer in the employment value proposition—one less bargaining chip you have.


For the most part, there are very good reasons for following established best practices when it comes to work habits:

  • When employees are unwell, there are increased health care costs and absenteeism, as well as diminished performance and impact on morale.
  • When employees do not attend to their grooming, attire, and manners, they make a negative impression on those with whom they interact.
  • When employees come in late, take long breaks, leave early, and miss deadlines, they add less value and they keep other people waiting.
  • When employees don’t take notes, use checklists, or follow good systems of organization, they misplace important information, lose track of what they are doing, and make it harder for others to coordinate with them.
  • When employees don’t pay attention to detail, they make more mistakes, causing diminished quality and requiring rework.
  • When employees cannot be counted on to follow through, projects are left unfinished, and others are distracted and inconvenienced by having to remind them.
  • When employees do not take initiative, opportunities are missed, and problems go unsolved.

These are all very strong business reasons for managers to enforce basic work habits on employees. But not all of them apply to all people in all jobs. Before you choose to impose a requirement or preference, at least ask yourself: What are the business reasons for this requirement? And what is the cost to you in terms of your flexibility in sweetening your employment proposition to your employees?

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is a bestselling author and the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm. He is the author of numerous books, including It’s Okay to Be the Boss; Not Everyone Gets a Trophy; and The 27 Challenges Managers Face. His newest book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work, is due for release in the summer of 2020 from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website at

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