What does mediocrity mean? The Cambridge dictionary defines it as: “the quality of being not very good”, in other words average – neither the best nor the worse. Mediocrity finds a home in the adage that “good enough is good enough”. When we say good enough, what is it good enough relative to?
It is tempting for leaders to focus exclusively on poor performers, when in fact the most problematic challenge is a team with one or more mediocre performers. Mediocrity is subtle, infectious, and a barrier to developing high-performing teams. In simple terms, a problem that needs to be rooted out quickly.
It often manifests itself as being stuck in a current circumstance and unable to break free. Or a lack of advancement or development because of the absence of effort or drive to grow. The end results are complacency and stagnation in the individual, and ultimately the team.
Within the context of a team, it festers for a few reasons:
- It’s easier
- Avoids conflict
- Conserves energy
Consider Sam’s situation. Sam goes into the office week in a week out, she long ago lost her passion for the role. Her enthusiasm was extinguished by a repeated lack of management action with suggestions and feedback that would improve the company’s customer service experiences. Sam has an apathy for the customer service IT solution design and deployments, the internal user teams only complain about its inefficiency for theirs’s and the customers’ use.
Sam does the minimum required to get the IT deployments done, nothing more and nothing less. Mediocrity has taken hold. Sam’s manager, Natalia, realizes that Sam’s work attitude is not a disaster, but neither is it outstanding. It falls into a grey space – Natalia can get by with Sam’s work. This is inherently the problem, tolerance.
It is important for Natalia to recognize that there is no magic wand to fix mediocre performance. Keep in mind that mediocrity within a team is indicative of poor leadership rather than low-quality employees.
Breaking the cycle
So, what leadership skills break the cycle of mediocracy?
- Link cause and effect
- Establish concrete measures
- Promote peer accountability
Natalia’s role is two-fold. Firstly, she needs to link the IT staff to the customer service solution, so they experience first-hand the effects of the tools that they are deploying. This will ignite a renewed passion for their work, linking the cause with the effects and why it matters. Mindsets transition from a “check the box” exercise to one where IT tools are designed and deployed to serve a purpose and a community.
Secondly, new IT design and deployment goals need to be linked clearly to the activities for Sam, and all IT staff, to create an understanding of what and why things are being done as they are. For instance, a measure that assesses user satisfaction such as: deploying new customer service tools only with a user acceptance test result greater than 95%.
Thirdly, Natalia recognizes that she cannot possibly see and address every performance gap within the team. Having taken the time to ensure her team is clear on what they do and why they do it, she can now build a culture of peer accountability. Peer accountability is possible because one team member can challenge another one when doing so in the best interest of the team’s shared mission.
Lastly, vocalize things! Leaders inevitably face moments where a visible commitment to high performance is needed to show they walk the talk. A common moment includes addressing the elephant in the room or a consistent underperformer. How the leader handles these situations will tell the team what their values are: mission or not rocking the boat.
Seize your moment to eradicate mediocracy
When we ask our team to step into high performance, we often create discomfort and stress. High performance requires us to stretch ourselves, accept that failure is possible, and recognize interpersonal conflicts that need addressing. How we handle these important moments will either amplify or end our ability to influence.
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Cartoon credit: Bill Watterson