If your future employer were to ask you: “Are you a great worker?” What would your answer be? Chances are, you would say something like: “Well, I think I am, because I am very good in what I do and I am passionate about my work.”

But that sounds like a stock answer in a formal job interview. Real great workers possess some special qualities that set them apart from the merely good ones. The challenge is how to identify these illusive attributes.

In today’s knowledge economy, human resources are the most important assets, because great people make great companies. Employers and human resources are always looking for great employees to gain a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, most bosses may not even recognize such valuable workers in their employ, because they are misguided by myths.

Three Common Myths

The management literature perpetuates three common myths.

The Talent Myth

Talent is overrated. Most employers look for talents, but the best employees may not be the brightest or the most talented ones.

Genius often fails. The highest scoring player in a sports team may be a liability rather than an asset, if he destroys the team spirit in his quest for personal glory. Similarly, the best sales manager may be so consumed by personal ambition to the point of poisoning the entire sales team.

Talent alone does not make one a great employee. The best workers have heart and character, even though they may not have an abundance of talents; they flourish through teamwork and synergy.

To evaluate employees, one needs to look at not only their performance records, but also their impact on the organization. From this broader view, even a journeyman can become a great employee by improving the production process and the morale of other workers.

The Happiness Myth

Happiness is also overrated. The “dairy farm” hypothesis posits that just as happy cows produce better milk, happy workers produce better work. But this analogy can only go so far. No company can survive, if it consistently yields to workers’ demands in order to keep them happy.

Csikszentmihalyis “flow” theory also has limited applications in the real world of work, because there are always some uninteresting aspects to any kind of job. What will happen to an organization, if all employees refuse to do anything they don’t enjoy, so that they can maximize the state of “flow”?

Generally, employees are hired for two reasons: to get the job done for which they are hired and to help the company succeed. Rarely are people hired so that they can find happiness at work. Good managers are able to strike a balance between task demands and job satisfaction.

The great workers are responsible, conscientious, and committed to the mission of the organization. They are willing to make the personal sacrifices. They do not make the pursuit of personal happiness their primary reason for working, but they derive satisfaction from serving a higher purpose and fulfilling a calling.

The Systems Myth

Management science tends to emphasize the importance of systems and processes. Many experts, such as Edward Deming and Toyota, believe that great systems will produce great workers and deliver excellent results.

Systems and processes are important, because they can either motivate or demotivate workers. A system of authoritarian control spawns a culture of fear and compliance, while a system of cultivating engagement creates a culture of confidence and commitment.

Ultimately the human factor remains the key to success and productivity. The best systems in the hands of bad manager will not work, while the worst systems may still function adequately when managed by great leaders. The Deming Management System, the Toyota Production System, or any other management system will work only when great managers hire the best people.

Systems per se do not produce great employees, people do. All the important innovations and all the great ideas for productivity are accomplished by people working together. Only an elite work force can produce superior products and services.

The Positive Psychology Solution

Contemporary research on positive psychology and positive management has identified three essential components for productivity and organizational success. More specifically, 

Powerful performance = Positive leaders + Positive organizations + Positive workers

All three elements need to be present in order to achieve optimal productivity. This winning formula works anywhere, regardless of the nature or configuration of the organization.

The positive psychology of leadership and management originates from the deepest aspirations locked inside the human soul. Many experts have recognized that people are wired to seek meaning, community, responsibility and personal growth; managers need to tap into these innate positive motivations (e.g., Alder, Frankl, Herzberg, Maslow, McGregor, Pattakos, and Wong).

As a relatively young science, positive psychology has much to offer to the business world. Recently, many psychologists emphasize the need to develop social/psychological capitals. More specifically, they stress the positive psychology of meaning, spirituality, strengths and virtues (e.g., Buckingham, Clifton, Dutton, Luthan, Peterson, Rath, Seligman, and Wong)

Positive Leaders

What makes a great leader will be the topic of my next essay. Suffice to say that they are optimistic, inspirational, and competent. They work with whatever they have to get the job done. They accentuate the positive rather than the negative. They recognize and reward their best workers rather than spend all their time putting out fires. They firmly believe that the best way to grow a company is through developing human resources. Therefore, they develop organizational systems and practices that produce a great work force.

Positive Systems

Positive organizations provide an environment that attract, develop, and retain great workers. They focus on strengths and are free from toxic elements, so that workers are motivated by love rather than fear. All hindrances to productivity are removed from the systems in order to motivate workers and unleash their creative potentials. Such systems are characterized by transparency, accountability, cooperation, and benevolence.

Positive Workers

Great workers are positive individuals. They are heroic, resilient, and resourceful. Even when the workplace is toxic and oppressive, they refuse to adopt a victim mentality. They transcend difficult situations and always find a way to achieve success. You can always count on them to get the job done.

Great leaders and excellent systems can develop positive workers into great workers, who exhibit the following attributes: the right competencies, the right motivations, the right attitudes, and added values.

The Four Attributes of Great Workers

The Right Competencies

Great workers have the right mix of strengths, aptitudes, and trainings for the position they hold. They constantly pursue self-development in order to better adapt to technological or organizational changes.

There are at least nine important areas which are important for optimal performance for most professions:

  1. Technical skills directly required for your job
  2. Innate strengths or natural endowment relevant to your profession
  3. Informational skills or a broad knowledge base related to your work
  4. Conceptual skills or intellectual capacity necessary for analysis, synthesis or problem solving
  5. Relational skills or emotional intelligence necessary for working with people
  6. Cultural competencies and foreign language skills necessary for working with people from other cultures
  7. Intuitive skills important for making good decision in the absence of sufficient information
  8. Creativity or the ability for innovations necessary for improving the product or the service
  9. Managerial or leadership skills necessary for planning, decision making and motivating others to get the job done

The Right Motivation

People’s motivation for work is seldom pure. Many people need to hold down a job they don’t really like because they can’t find a better position to provide for their families. Others consider each job as a stepping stone to advance their long-term careers. For the fortunate few, work is fun, because they love what they do and do what they love.

Great workers are passionate about their work for the right reasons. They don’t work just for fun or money. They align their personal interests and life goals with the mission of their organization. They serve a higher purpose and fulfill a calling.

They are psychologically engaged and committed at work. The Gallup Organization has plenty of evidence to prove that engaged workers make more money for the company, create loyal customers, and make the work environment the best place to work.

The Right Attitude

They have positive attitudes towards work, people and life even when things are going tough. They accept the fact that something always happens that is unexpected and unpleasant. They are flexible, resourceful and optimistic to overcome whatever life throws at them. They know how to turn every crisis into opportunity. They take an optimistic and heroic stance when things are going badly.

Added Values

The great workers are great not only because of how well they do their job, but also because of what they do beyond the call of duty. They bring themselves—their love, faith, hope and other virtues—to their work. They encourage and validate others. They seek opportunities to help others succeed. Quietly and behind the scene, they perform good deeds to enrich the lives of other people.

They make their bosses look good and fellow workers feel good. They exude positive energies and their joy is contagious. Their very presence uplifts the spirit of others and attracts customers.

How to Develop Great Workers

Many people began their careers aspiring to achieve greatness, but become demotivated and cynical because of negative work experiences. Great leaders and managers will provide the necessary environment and training opportunities for workers to acquire the above four attributes.

There is good news for you—all the above attributes about great workers can be developed and acquired through training. Many consultants and coaches provide trainings based on positive psychology and positive management. Many universities, including Tyndale University College, offer courses related to the development of positive leaders, positive systems and positive workers.

The positive psychology solution can help revitalize your organizations. You can be part of this positive evolution!

Are You a Great Worker?

Paul T. P. Wong

Here is a set of 21 questions to measure whether you are a great worker, who provides added values to your organization. Reflect on your answers and decide on how to improve yourself:

1. Do you consistently make the extra effort to find better ways to improve your performance at work?
2. Do you dedicate some time to self-improvement and self-education?
3. Do you always do your best regardless of the circumstances?
4. In the last week, did you ever encourage someone at work, whether it is your co-worker, supervisor or subordinate?
5. Do you often go beyond the call of duty to help someone in your organization?
6. Have you ever used your power or position to make things difficult for other workers?
7. Has anyone ever commented that you are such a positive person or have a very positive influence at work?
8. Have you intentionally done something to make the workplace a more pleasant and positive place to work? 
9. Have you intentionally said something good about your co-worker or boss? 
10. Have you taken credits for the great ideas from others? 
11. Have you ever used bureaucratic control to assert your power?
12. Do you accentuate the positive in every situation?
13. Are you generous in sharing information and other resources with others?
14. Do you celebrate co-workers’ success?
15. Have you ever sabotaged co-workers to make sure that they do not outshine you? 
16. Do you love your work in spite of the negative sides? 
17. Do you speak up with honesty and respect if senior management plan to do something that may have a negative effect on morale and productivity?
18. Have you ever blamed others for your mistakes or poor performance? 
19. Do you frequently provide suggestions to your superior on how to improve the process and increase productivity? 
20. Have you ever bad-mouthed your co-workers in order to make yourself look good?
21. Do you do everything within your power to contribute to corporate success, even when your efforts are not recognized or rewarded?


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Wong, P. T. P. (2007, March). What makes a great worker? A positive psychology solution. Positive Living Newsletter. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/what-makes-a-great-worker-a-positive-psychology-solution/