Avoiding Mediocrity: Don't Let Your Business Die Of "Good Enough"
Good is often the enemy of great. When "good enough" becomes the norm, innovation lags. A culture of getting by - not ahead - becomes entrenched. More than globalization; more than economic turbulence; more than increased competition - mediocrity is the biggest enemy your business faces. Are you settling for good enough? And how can you break out of the mold you cast for yourself?
Does Mediocrity Rule Your Business?
From a young age, self-made millionaire Robert Herjavic was determined to be extraordinary. He devoured books by and about successful people. "That's when I learned that nobody cares about average. Greatness is what counts. If you want to be successful... do one thing and do it better than everyone else. Do whatever it takes to be great."
The first step towards success is recognizing whether mediocrity has become "business as usual." Have you grown average? In "Are You Tolerating Mediocrity: 10 Ways To Tell," Val Wright suggest that leaders ask themselves the following questions:
- Can you immediately think of anyone you should have "already dealt with"?
- Do your managers understand your expectations of them?
- Do you invite managers to discuss and learn outstanding leadership lessons? Do you make it easy for them to do so?
- Do you point to your best people as role models?
- During leadership meetings, do you spend 25% of your time talking about your people?
- Do you have 90-day reviews for new hires to evaluate success?
- Does every employee have clear, measurable goals?
- Do they discuss goals and development with their managers and/or with you?
- Do you think about moving people into roles that accentuate their strengths?
- If necessary, do you help people leave your company quickly and with dignity?
Take a hard look at your company, at your own leadership. Do you foster an atmosphere that rewards learning, growth, and high performance? Or do you put up with subpar results. You will get what you tolerate.
In a scathing article on mediocrity, veteran executive Balaji Krishnamurthy writes that most businesses have a big, bold sign above their front doors. It reads, "Mediocrity Invited." While many would argue vehemently against the idea that they are average, or barely average, their practices belie those claims.
He suggests changing the signage: "Put up a real sign over the door that reads, 'The sign that used to hang here has been intentionally removed.'" When people come to ask what the new sign means, you "intentionally cause a conversation." So, let's get the conversation started: what can you do to disinvite mediocrity?
A subordinate doesn't follow up on an action item from your last meeting. One of your direct reports is consistently late for work. What do you do? Too often, the answer is "nothing." Holding people - and ourselves - accountable is uncomfortable; we don't want to upset the apple cart, so to speak, so instead we ignore it.
This creates twin problems: one, employees do not get the feedback they need to improve. And two, many don't care to improve. Why should they? Why be early when you can be late? Why do a tough assignment when you can put it on someone else's shoulders. The remedy: get uncomfortable - when necessary. Create a culture of accountability.
Make Performance Management a Priority
Wright asks, "Can you immediately think of someone on your team you should have already dealt with?" Why haven't you? When you delay performance management, you take the burden off subpar employees and directly onto high-performers. This extra, and unfair, weight often leads to disengagement and attrition. Again, you may have to get uncomfortable; but deal with your underperformers swiftly and decisively. Create plans for improvement - or show them the door.
Recognize Great Work...
The "everyone gets a trophy" mentality extends into the workplace. Dr. Krishnamurthy writes, "The fear of giving recognition is the fear of upsetting those unrecognized." Many leaders either do not praise their star employees, or they go in the opposite direction and praise everyone. Recognition becomes virtually meaningless - especially to the hard-workers who get the results.
...and Pay for It
According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of results come from 20% of people. The ratios change from company to company, but the crux is that your top people deliver most of your gains. At the same time, in most organizations, the pay rate is the same for folks who drive results as it is for those who simply take up space.
If you're going to recognize great work, why not put your money where your mouth is? Dr. Krishnamurthy puts forth three different options to do this. While they are, in his own words, "bizarre," they offer food for thought:
- Raise or Resignation. Don't give annual raises. If an employee wants an increase, they can come to you for a review. They also need to bring their resignation: "I will guarantee one of the two." Those who will take you up on the offer are those who are confident in their ability and legitimately believe they deserve a raise.
- Cut pay. Another "bizarre" idea: at the beginning of each year, employees' salaries will be cut by 10%. You will contribute these savings to a pool of money for annual increases. This way, instead of a 3 or 4% raise across the board, you have the funds to boost salaries of high performers by as much as 13 or 14 percent. Another win for those who work for it.
- 0% or 5+%. This is an idea Dr. Krishnamurthy actually tried; look at the standard deviation of your salary increases. A larger variation tends to indicate that some employees get larger increases, while others receive lower increases.
Let's say you budgeted 3.7% for raises. How do you achieve that average, but still give high-performers larger increases? Decree that all raises have to be either 0% or 5% and above. The average must be 3.7%. This way, you can afford to give your stars a raise of 10%, 15% - while those who consistently underperform see that fact reflected in their paycheck.
As Michael Schrage writes in HBR's The Coming Collapse of Average Managers and Employees, "For most firms today, mediocrity is a cost to be managed and a burden to be borne..." It is burden that companies cannot carry sustainably. To survive and thrive, don't accept average. Become great.