Stop Tolerating Mediocrity Already
Frequently, when I meet with an organization for dialogs around a consulting project I assess a few things before either accepting or declining the adventure. One of the things I assess is – if recognition [especially around top performance] is or is not a priority with the organization or if they aren’t open to treating their top performers with special considerations…I won’t accept the project. Great people with great attitudes who are highly-productive in the workplace are few and far between. If an organization has a cavalier attitude towards recognition, reward, and/or results there isn’t a lot I can help them with. They will lose their top talent, ultimately, and fade away from relevance in today’s world.
A few weeks ago I visited with an organization where – for years – mediocrity has clearly reigned supreme. Department directors and mid- and senior-level leaders who have been in the business over a year and in some cases 15+ years cannot articulate where they have made an impact on the brand, the customer experience, or the employee experience. When asked about timelines to infuse newness into the processes and programs – the answer was always “by the end of the year…hopefully”. When they initially contacted me they were interested in elevating their leadership program and relevance so after the first day meeting with them and understanding a little bit about what their “hope” was I took a few hours that evening to do some research on their business and to draft a simple outline for a digestible but engaging leadership development program. I submitted an outline to their Director of Learning & Development in a very crude format. 24 hours went by without any feedback, without any questions, without even a “thanks, but no thanks”. Silence.
At the 24 hour mark was when I decided this was not a project I could accomplish much on and made the decision to decline and step away. When companies have a desire to stop tolerating mediocrity and “good enough” I am excited to help them develop into healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability. When they are satisfied with mediocrity and – essentially – anonymity in their industry, when they excuse their lack of results on the customer, the market, the competition – their failure clearly lies in the hands of the executives, directors, and managers inside that organization and I quickly recognize that I alone [I work much better as a we than I do as a me] am not capable of resuscitating a brand that is – literally – gasping for air.
Initially, I was really excited about this project – they spoke in very forward thinking terms: reinvention, innovation, brand redesign, creativity…words that can only be delivered on through action, rigor, and enthusiasm. Through forward movement, activity, and alignment around these words – organizations can create robust and compelling brand propositions even if the brand has been stagnant for a while. People are inspired by a clear and defined strategy and understanding how their role fits into the strategic vision. My first day in the office, I was asking questions around the organization’s vision and was told that the company “adopts and abandons” more than they maintain. The company vision was posted in every single meeting room in the building and when I asked about it, I was told the framed vision was brought over from their old office and was only there so the walls weren’t empty – no one would be able to recite the vision, values, or any part of it.
How They Deal With Mediocrity Defines Leaders
The truest test of a leader often isn’t dealing with poor performance – after all, that’s actually very simple to address. No, the toughest and truest test lies in addressing mediocrity. Though this should be as simple as addressing poor performance it is not for most managers and there are a few consistent excuses I hear when I surface the issue of dealing with mediocrity:
- They Use Hope As A Strategy [UGH!]: Not just as it relates to mediocre or poor performance but in every area they oversee. I get it, it’s a much easier path to take. It’s extremely easy for a “manager” to look the other way when an employee’s work is average but far from exciting, inspired, or great. Work of adequate quality isn’t a disaster, nor is it excellent, fabulous, or valuable. It falls into a blurry, gray, safe, passable area for those who champion and maintain the status quo. It’s enough to get by with. Which is exactly the problem. These are usually the “managers” that expect more from the people on their team who are intrinsically motivated to deliver excellence. They also use hope that their people will have an occasional flash of brilliance or luck and that will absorb their usual mundane efforts.
- It Allows The “Manager” To Avoid Difficult Dialogs: After all, who likes conflict or confrontation? In management you actually often can avoid it simply by not dealing with it and pretending it’s not an issue, but there’s a high cost to be paid when you take this route. By not addressing mediocre performance, you’re deliberately accepting it. Management is easy – it’s about telling people what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Leadership is difficult – it’s about understanding you have a responsibility to your people to help them be the absolute best versions of themselves every single day and guiding them through example, dialog, and support. This takes patience, time, and energy. That’s why exceptional leaders are committed to everyone contributing and collaborating in a equal way to the team. Phenomenal leaders don’t shy away from difficult or uncomfortable conversations. They know that to be the best mentor to each person on their team they need to be a passionate and authentic truth-teller and listener and sometimes that means dealing with the yucky stuff.
- It Requires Significantly Less Energy: Yep – this is a big one…being a great leader is opposite of easy. Great and effective leadership is not accidental. It’s deliberate because we work exceedingly hard to deliver fabulousness each day. Leadership is an intrinsically challenging role: You’re constantly multitasking. Rallying your team around the business strategy. You have to deal with poor performing employees or employees with poor attitudes and even with your own [sometimes] annoying managers and executives … plus, depending on your role, a host of other random aggravations such as – bureaucracy, red tape, processes that don’t add value to the business. In this environment you may often feel that the last thing you need is to spend your energy on is a relatively small battle and one that isn’t exactly horrible. So you choose to look the other way and accept mediocrity. But when does that stop? Do you do it once? Twice? The reality is – it doesn’t stop. Once you accept it from yourself, it becomes easier to look the other way again and again.
High performance, excellent results, inspired, and impactful work needs to be expected, maintained, recognized, and defended regularly and vigilantly by every leader who wants to be know as great. Let the masses have their mediocrity. Great leaders never accept anything but the absolute best from their people and their people would never expect any less from their leader other than to push and support them toward their best results, consistently.