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  • Writer's pictureBassam Tarazi

Exposed: The Dark Side Of A 'Good Work Ethic'

It’s 3PM. You and a colleague are sitting next to each other when your boss comes in and asks, “Hey, do one of you have the bandwidth to help me?”

In the time it takes for a glance and an elongated, “Ummm—,” each of you weighs office culture, hierarchies, relationships, and personal motivation, while pondering what kind of work is on the other side of yes, and could you save face if you dished out a no.

One of the tools to get you to sear your hand on the potato for longer than is necessary (or healthy) is by claiming that those second degree burns are a form of “good work ethic.” It’s an idea that is manifested in phrases like “Above and beyond,” “Do whatever it takes,” and “Can’t stop, won’t stop.”

Why do we always reach for metaphors of pack mules when describing “work ethic”? I mean, we’ve tried to give “work smarter, not harder” some love, but when it comes to articulating office value, an opportune vulture maximizing leverage, or a covert chameleon hiding in plain sight cannot compete with the imagery of a beast of burden barreling towards burnout.

Why not? Because—like Neanderthal DNA that still lingers in some of our genetic code—the Puritan ethos of “work hard because it serves God” still defines who we are in the workplace.

It’s toil, not cunning, that provides our worth in America. (Sweat we can see, smarts we cannot.)

Asserting some sort of theological lens to work is a devilish idea, especially in a capitalist context, where more is always better. Because instead of subsistence farming and tilling the earth, we now work for the sake of growth. If we’re not growing, we’re not working hard enough, apparently. Even rest is pitched in its relationship to future output. “Go on vacation to get recharged”—presumably, for more work.

When we use “good worth ethic” to solely refer to minutes of effort, creativity and dignity get replaced by servitude.

Sure, punctuality, dependability, a bout of output, or helping a colleague in need are examples of having a good work ethic, but they’re not the only thing.

What Is An Ethic?

The word “ethic” is derived from the Greek word ethos, meaning custom. Companies should have to define their work ethic, or what it means to succeed here; and employees should accept or decline that way of working.

Because the crux of the matter is: Who benefits from your supposed “good work ethic”? The corporation? Your boss? Your team? Yourself?

If the customs of your office are overwork, backstabbing, ambiguity, a glorification of hours, and a hot potato thrown at you in the guise of “being a team player,” run for the hills. These are not values to live by.

  • Self-respect is

  • Having boundaries are

  • Digging for clarity is

  • Questioning norms is

  • Making space for your personal life is

To hell with having a “good work ethic” if having one means that all you do is work.

Any definition for “good work ethic” should fit under the umbrella of a “good life ethic”? It’s important to know what your values are.

Here are three questions that help you reject (or at least, better prepare for) the hot potato that was just thrown at you:

"How are we defining success?"

Bosses love to be vague when their specificity means that they might get less out of you. It's not always intentional, but they're busy too. Getting clear on how success is being measured for you and/or the project is just a healthy practice for everyone involved. No use spending time zigging when everyone secretly wishes you would be zagging.

"By when?"

Someone has asked you to do something? Great, by when do they need it? Ask them to be specific. Also, “ASAP” is not a valid answer, unless you (and the requester) know where the ask fits into your hierarchy or prioritization. This leads me to the next statement…

"What would you like me to prioritize?"

Everyone wants you to feel like their ask is a priority, so long as you stay cordial and keep showing up to work everyday. Inevitably, you’ll have more than one thing you’re working on when everyone’s favorite scalding root vegetable comes careening your way. The best approach? “I have these two other things I’m working on right now that I was told were priorities. How does this new ask fit into that flow? What should my immediate priority be?” You’re not a mind reader. If you don’t ask, then everything is a priority, and your life will be miserable.

Your boss will actually appreciate these questions because it means that you are being thoughtful about maximizing your impact while minimizing burnout on the way to reaching pre-stated goals. I'd say that's what having a good worth ethic is really all about.


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