Workplace Culture

3 Characteristics of Great Employees

The best workplaces are filled with great employees – but finding great employees to hire is not always easy.

Often our interview questions don’t help us identify the characteristics we should be looking for. Sometimes we don’t even know what we should look for. And sometimes we don’t recognize it when it’s right under our noses.

When my son was four he threw his sister’s glasses out the dining room window. He was angry at her and his secret disposal was his payback. We began a frantic search, combing the house. During our hunt my son came and matter-of-factly told me that he’d tossed the glasses out the window. I listened with half an ear, but the truth was that I was too busy on my hunt to pay much attention. He was a little 4-year-old, a gentle and sweet natured boy, and the behaviour seemed so out of character that I disregarded it. Several days later I found the glasses lying on the grass outside – just where he said they would be. He had told me where to look, but I just didn’t listen. Looking for the best employees is a little like this. We often spend a lot of time looking in the wrong places.

Great employees are engaged in the work they do. But how do we measure engagement before an employee is on staff, before we see them on the job for an extended period of time? There is no foolproof way to discern engagement but there are clues – we just need to look in the right places.

Employees who are engaged self-motivate, self-manage and self-initiate. We would do well to understand why these are so important and have some questions to help us in the hiring quest.

1. Self-Motivate

Motivation is necessary because it leads to engagement, which in turn leads to workplace satisfaction. Satisfaction leads to more work being accomplished – and this makes our company productive and successful. This level of reciprocity is the sweet spot for employee and employer.

Motivation can come from a pay cheque, and from perks and bonuses. These are external motivators and most certainly have a place. Your best employees, however, are intrinsically motivated. This means they do a job well because they derive satisfaction from a job well done. These are the kind of employees we want to fill our workplace. Intrinsic motivation is often demonstrated not just in how we work, but in how we approach our lives outside of work. The idea is that how we do anything is how we do everything.

Here are a few interview questions to consider in gauging the level of self-motivation:

  • What gives you satisfaction outside of work?
  • What do you take pride in?
  • Other than a pay cheque, what is your motivation to work here?

2. Self-Manage

An employee’s ability to focus their attention, effort and persistence is an indicator of their ability to self-manage. A very common fear of supervisors and managers is employees who work well while the watchful eye is on them, but whose work pace and quality deteriorates when they are left on their own.

Another word for self-management is autonomy. In his TED talk about motivation, Daniel Pink identifies autonomy as one of the essential elements needed to improve employee engagement. Autonomy most simply defined is the ability to self-direct one’s work, to make choices and to establish the best way to accomplish a task on our own. Great employees do not need or want to be micromanaged. They are self-managers. They work to complete quality work, they reinvent and tweak processes, they persist when things get tough.

Here are a few interview questions to help assess an employee’s self-management:

  • Tell me about a time you had to learn a new task or procedure. What was the hardest part of learning the process? What did you do to learn the task or process? How did it work out?
  • Describe a situation where you exercised a significant amount of self-control.
  • Give me an example that demonstrates your willingness and ability to work hard.

3. Self-Initiate

One of the most unproductive states an employee can be in is waiting for someone to tell them what to do. The most productive workplaces are filled with employees who see what needs to be done and then do it without prodding. In addition, employees who take initiative are not just focused on putting their head down and working, they are also mindful that they are working for something that is of value and addressing pressing needs. Engaged employees report back to their teammates and supervisors and have a level of communal awareness that is balanced with independence.

It is important to not confuse self-initiative with isolation. Contrasted with isolation, initiative is seen when people are keenly interested and personally invested in the success of the company. They believe in the services or products they offer. Valuable initiative is about working as part of a team. We understand fully our unique role and have the confidence in our own abilities to contribute to the collective good of the workplace.

Here are a few interview questions to help you assess an employee’s initiative:

  • Describe a change you made in how you do your work. What was it and how did it turn out?
  • Have you ever asked for more work or a new task? Why?
  • Tell me about some suggestions you have made to a supervisor. Why did you make the suggestions and how did it turn out?

If you want to create a vibrant and healthy workplace, fill it with great employees who are motivated, manage themselves and self-initiate – then watch as your company reaps the benefits of success and your employees have a growing pride in their contribution.

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Wendy Loewen

Managing Director

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