Seven Habits of Highly Effective Employees

woman interviews with two executives
By Ross Kimbarovsky

6 minutes

Look for them during interviews.

A great team is nearly always the difference between the success or failure of a business. But it’s not easy to build a great team that shares your vision.

What common habits do nearly all great employees have? Look for these habits when you interview and make hiring or promotion decisions. (And refer to the sidebar, opposite, for questions that will help you identify these habits.)

1. Great Employees Have Strong Discipline

Talented people are most effective when they’re in a good mood or excited about their work. But it’s rare that they can be in a good mood 100 percent of the time. Certainly the initial excitement about a project often dissipates as the project moves along. Even you aren’t 100 percent excited about your business at all times. That’s because a business is like a roller-coaster ride. There are many ups and downs­—often in the same day. It’s important that employees stay disciplined for the duration of the ride.

2. Great Employees Welcome Criticism

We all make mistakes. The most effective employees seek constructive criticism (especially when they’ve made a mistake). Winston Churchill famously said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Average employees typically become defensive and hostile when receiving constructive feedback. Highly effective employees know that it’s difficult to improve without constructive feedback.

Think about your own employees or, if you’re working for someone else, your colleagues. When you or another person provide constructive criticism, do your employees or colleagues listen and act on that criticism? Or do they instead argue and quickly become defensive?

3. Great Employees Embrace Opportunities

The most effective employees look for weaknesses within an organization, both to correct those weaknesses and to show skill and leadership. Highly effective employees don’t sit and wait for opportunities to come to them.

4. Great Employees Are Persistent

True innovation requires hard work and focus, not just great ideas. We tend to be excited about end goals, but not prepared for the hard work and persistence that reaching those goals requires. Even with careful planning, some projects can take much longer to complete than expected.

5. Great Employees Are Decisive

Don’t hire people for any position if you don’t believe they can be decisive. To scale your business, you want people to take risks and not worry about making mistakes. Most employees, especially at bigger companies, hold themselves back because they fear failure.

It’s true that some ideas and initiatives will fail. Maybe even most will fail. Think of those ideas and initiatives as experiments and follow Thomas Edison’s perspective: “I haven’t failed; I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

You’ll rarely have complete information when running a business or making decisions, but indecision is paralyzing.

6. Great Employees Listen First

Most people talk too much. The most effective employees (and leaders) are people who listen first and talk when they have something meaningful to add to the conversation. Such employees are effective because they don’t need to hear themselves talk. They consider the facts, ask questions and then share an opinion. Silence is golden.

By asking questions, you’re exploring whether candidates take cues from your answers to ask follow-up questions. If they simply walk in and ask three pre-written questions, it’s doubtful they care much about what you have to say—they’re simply asking questions because most job candidates are expected to ask questions during an interview.

Pay attention to how they’re asking the questions. Are they asking “why” questions or “what” questions? A person who knows how to listen first generally asks “why” questions—why do you need something done, for example.

People who lack good listening skills generally ask “what” questions—what do you need done. Even though the questions seem similar, they’re not. A person who understands the answer to the “why” can be creative and might find a much better way to solve a problem. A person who asks “what” questions will typically do what needs to be done, but since such people won’t know why you need it done, they’ll have little room or reason to be creative.

7. Great Employees Know Their Limits

The most effective employees are experts in their key areas, but recognize when a project is over their head and bring in others to help. They generously share credit with others to make sure that others would continue to lend a helping hand in the future. This conveys great judgment and leadership. You don’t want employees who take on projects they can’t complete, waste months on those projects, and then leave or come to tell you that they are overwhelmed. You also don’t want people to take 100 percent of the credit and dish out 100 percent of the blame.

Ask These Questions

During the interview, these five questions will help you determine if the candidates have the seven qualities discussed above.

  1. When interviewing, ask about the candidate’s most favorite project and also about their least favorite project. Compare the passion with which they describe each project, the effort they brought to each project and the results they achieved. Highly effective employees will, naturally, be more passionate about projects they loved, but they’ll demonstrate a good deal of self-discipline talking about projects they did not like­—and what they did to achieve great results despite a lack of strong interest.
  2. Ask about a time when the candidate made a mistake in their job and how they dealt with it. What did their boss do and say? Did the candidate agree with the feedback? How did they respond? Did they respond promptly?
  3. Ask candidates about longer projects on which they worked. Talk about the details, how they maintained their motivation, focus and excitement over a long period of time. How did they deal with teammates who were not as motivated or focused?
  4. Ask candidates about projects in their prior jobs where they took big risks. How did that project originate? Was it self-driven or assigned?
  5. Ask about especially difficult projects that required collaboration with others. Was the collaboration required or did the candidate bring in other people after the project started to fill in expertise gaps? How did the teams work together? How was credit (and blame) shared?

Ross Kimbarovsky is founder and CEO at crowdSPRING and Startup Foundry. In 2007, Ross left a successful 13-year career as a trial lawyer to pursue his dream of founding a technology company by starting crowdSPRING, a marketplace for crowd-sourced logo design, web design, graphic design, product design and company naming services.

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