9 Traits That Make Great Employees Outstanding

Last Updated Oct 20, 2011 2:39 PM EDT

Everyone knows great employees are dependable, reliable, proactive, great team players, have strong work ethics... all the standard (yet often uncommon) qualities. So what traits take a great employee to the next level and make them a truly outstanding employee?

The extra 1%: The qualities that often go unnoticed (and unremarked in performance evaluations) yet make a major impact on performance.

Here is my list of qualities that make an already great employee outstanding:
  • A little bit "off." The best employees are a little different: Quirky, sometimes irreverent, happy to be unusual... they seem slightly "off," but in a really good way. Unusual personalities shake things up, make work more fun, and turn a vanilla group into a team with flavor and flair. People who aren't afraid to be different stretch boundaries, challenge the status quo, and often come up with the best ideas. But for this to be a great quality, the people who are a little "off" also need to...
  • Know when to reel it in. A non-standard personality is a lot of fun until it isn't. When times get tough, major challenges pop up, or situations become stressful, even the most eccentric should know when to set aside their desire to express their individuality and fit seamlessly into the team. Outstanding employees know when to play and when to be serious, when to be irreverent and when to conform, and when to challenge and when to back off. Tough balance to strike, but outstanding employees walk that fine line with ease.
  • Ignore job descriptions. The smaller the company the more important it is that employees think on their feet, adapt quickly to shifting priorities, and do whatever it takes, regardless of role or position, to get things done. When a key customer's order is in danger of shipping late, outstanding employees know without being told there's a problem -- and jump in without being asked, even if it's not "their job."
  • Eager to prove others wrong. Self-motivation often springs from a desire to show that doubters are wrong. The kid without a college degree or the woman who was told she didn't have leadership potential could have a burning desire to prove themselves. Education, intelligence, talent, skill -- all are important, but drive is critical.
  • Praise in public. Few things can boost morale more than praise from a peer, especially a peer you look up to. Outstanding employees recognize the contributions of others, especially in group settings where the impact of their words is even greater. But they also know when to...
  • Complain in private. We all want employees to raise issues, but some problems are better handled one-on-one. Great employees often get more latitude to bring up controversial subjects because their performance allows greater freedom. The employee who comes to you after a meeting to discuss a sensitive issue that if brought up in a group setting would have set off a firestorm does you and the business a favor. And speaking of favors...
  • Ask questions for others. Some employees are hesitant to speak up in meetings. Some are even hesitant to speak up privately. For example, an employee once asked me a question about potential layoffs. After the meeting I said, "Why did you ask? You already know what's going on." He said, "Yeah, I did, but a lot of other people don't -- and they needed to hear the answer from you." Outstanding employees have a feel for the issues and concerns of those around them and step up to ask questions others are hesitant.
  • Start work on time. What does "on time" mean? Walking in the front door on time? Getting to your desk on time? Outstanding employees start working when the workday starts; they don't get their coffee, hang around and chat, take care of personal stuff... they hit the ground running, on time. Granted, this might just be a pet peeve, but if your start time is 8 a.m. shouldn't you be working at 8 a.m.?
  • Tinker. Some people are rarely satisfied -- in a good way -- and are constantly playing around with something: Reworking a report, tweaking a process, experimenting with a different workflow. Great employees follow processes. Outstanding employees go a step farther and find ways to make those processes even better, not just because they are expected to but because they can't just help themselves.
That's my list; what traits are on your list?

Jeff Haden is a ghostwriter and speaker who has ghostwritten four Amazon #1 bestsellers.
Related: Photo courtesy flickr user aflcio, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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