“Beware the lollipop of mediocrity. Lick it once and you’ll suck forever.”
– Brian Wilson, founding member of The Beach Boys
Have you ever watched The Weakest Link? It’s a television game show where contestants answer a series of questions, then vote to remove the lowest-performing person. Each round concludes with the show’s host coldly proclaiming: “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!”
Who or what are the weakest links in your organization?
After all, just like on the game show, you are only as good as your weakest link. But it’s often difficult to identify a weak link, acknowledge the problem, and/or make the decision to remove someone from the organization.
Here’s the hidden cost: You wind up accepting mediocrity because you’re busy, people are hard to find and hire, you’re unwilling to accept a hard truth, you’re emotionally entangled with some of your staff, or—let’s be brutally honest here—you’re overly dependent on some of your worst offenders. So you tolerate the weak links.
Tolerating mediocrity has devastating effects on any organization over time. It repels top performers. It poisons work environments. It damages customer relationships and loyalty. It burns out managers. It slows (or kills) growth.
Books, speakers, seminars, research, and classes talk about getting the Right People in the Right Seats (RPRS), but what exactly does that mean? For example, how do you know when you have the wrong person in your firm, or perhaps the right person, but in the wrong seat?
Understanding what you tolerate and accept as a leader helps answer those questions—provided you are open to hearing and acting on the message. Here are the four areas where you’re most likely allowing mediocrity to take root in your organization.
Although there are numerous behaviors I watch leaders tolerate that contribute to mediocrity, the most common is an unwillingness or inability to live the company’s core values.
A classic example is the high performer who’s a cultural misfit. At the extreme, I call these people Toxic High Performers. One could be your top salesperson who doesn’t show up to meetings on time, never has their paperwork in order, or acts like a diva in front of your staff. Another could be your top customer service representative who refuses to share their expansive knowledge of your products, services, and systems with other staff. But because these employees are highly productive, many leaders tolerate the inappropriate behaviors and turn a blind eye.
Yes, they’re top performers, but they’re clearly not a cultural fit. And it’s obvious to everyone—not just leadership—because all eyes and ears are on you all the time. This includes what you do, what you say, what you don’t do, what you don’t say, and what you tolerate both in yourself and in others. When the rest of your staff realize you’re enforcing a double standard (and rest assured, they will!), they become resentful. This is why, over time, retaining low culture fit employees, even if they’re high performers, destroys culture and productivity.
Another behavior I see leaders tolerate in themselves and in others is rewarding heroic actions. Examples of rewarding heroics include celebrating when an employee pulls an all-nighter to submit a client proposal on time or when someone on vacation spends 3-4 hours solving a problem for one of your clients. Acts of workplace heroics are HORRIBLE to reinforce. Although legitimately warranted at times, particularly in small, high-growth firms, heroics are neither sustainable nor scalable. Rather, successful, scalable firms lack drama and operate predictably on a sustainable basis over time. If your business model requires heroics, it’s a very serious warning sign that you could be on the wrong trajectory.
Non-learning is the final behavior I’ll highlight as one often tolerated by leaders. Non-learners are the people on your staff who won’t or can’t or refuse to learn, grow, or improve. These employees aren’t willing to hear feedback and don’t respond to coaching, so they stagnate as others and your firm grow around them. Think of the message this tolerance sends to the learners and high performers in your organization!
Fear causes leaders to tolerate undesirable and unsustainable behaviors. If a top producer is the problem, who’s going to make up that revenue? What about the institutional knowledge that you’ll lose if you terminate them? You also might be emotionally entangled: maybe you hired them as employee number four, you see them socially, and you think “I can’t let them go. We’re friends!”
When faced with these situations, it’s helpful to focus on the effect of your decisions on the rest of the firm. I’ve observed countless leaders over the years who focus relentlessly on the “problems”—the 5% of their staff who need to be “fixed.” They expend massive time and energy on a small portion of their team while ignoring the impact on the majority! When you take the perspective of the majority–the 95% instead of the 5%–you’ll find it easier to stop tolerating certain behaviors and make the right moves to strengthen your team.
Without fail, 100% of the time, whenever I’ve had a client finally bite the bullet and fire a behavioral misfit, they come back to me after the fact and say: “I should have done this six months ago.”
Then, without fail, 100% of the time, I reply: “You’re being too kind to yourself. You should have done this a year ago.”
There are two areas where leaders commonly accept results-based mediocrity: Employees who miss the mark and employees with low accountability.
Employees who miss the mark are the opposite of what we discussed regarding behaviors—they’re a great cultural fit but don’t achieve their objectives. Although these employees might be non-learners which makes them the wrong fit for your firm, occasionally, when a low-performer is a high cultural fit, it might be a case of “right person, wrong seat.” In these instances, a role change might be the fix that’s needed.
With the best possible intentions, leaders often place people in roles that aren’t suited to their abilities and strengths. It’s important to look for this when someone underperforms, particularly if they’ve been a valuable employee in the past and are a solid cultural fit for your firm. Regardless of the cause, you cannot tolerate underperformance from your team. The lowest performer in any group sets the bar for what’s “acceptable.” This causes high performers to look elsewhere for a challenge and encourages others to aim lower in their work.
Leaders who accept a low level of accountability also allow mediocrity to creep into their organization. Non-accountable employees tend to point fingers and blame others, to withhold information and obscure the truth, or to communicate infrequently. If you accept a status update like this: “There’s a small issue, but by next week, we’ll be back on track,” or: “Don’t worry about it—we’ll get it done,” chances are you’re tolerating low accountability.
High accountability, on the other hand, includes frequent and detailed communication, personal ownership of outcomes, proactively identifying potential risks, and asking for help. Raise your expectations of your team regarding accountable behaviors to counteract the creep of mediocrity associated with low accountability.
As a leader, you are ultimately accountable for the results your team produces. Tolerating low performers and non-accountable behaviors make YOU a low-performing leader if you refuse to do something about it.
There are two areas where leaders commonly accept relationship-based mediocrity: tolerating “takers” at the expense of “givers” and fostering co-dependency rather than growing independent employees.
Healthy, positive relationships in the workplace are key to maintaining a high-performance culture. But it’s surprisingly easy to become so entwined in the details of the business that your team’s relationships, those with you and with each other, don’t get the attention they deserve. One way or another, mediocrity soon follows.
An example of an unhealthy relationship behavior is tolerating or even encouraging employees who are takers rather than givers. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes that employees decide how much to give to their colleagues daily—in assistance, in knowledge, in networking connections, and more. But in a competitive workplace, they’re often tempted to be takers, “trying to get others to serve their ends while carefully guarding their own expertise and time.”
Givers are the bedrock of a successful, growing firm. But if you foster an environment that rewards takers—even unintentionally through individual performance metrics and bonus structures—employees feel pitted against one another and, as Grant puts it, can adopt a “not my job” mentality. Encourage and reward giving behaviors as an integral part of your firm’s culture.
Failing to cultivate self-reliance in your team is another common source of relationship-based mediocrity. Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, more proactive, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Yet, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from people by telling them what to do! Although running an organization with “one brain and 1,000 hands” can feel good in the short-term, over time, your team’s reliance on you will grow while their capacity to perform independently won’t.
As I wrote at length here, at first it will take more time and energy to empower your employees than it does to tell them what to do. But the returns are massive when you resist the urge to give instructions, challenge your people to think independently, and encourage them to become more self-reliant. Before long, you’ll be able to get out of the details and lead more strategically because you’ll have a more capable, independent, and reliable team.
Finally, it’s important to periodically evaluate your own professional relationships to ensure you’re not the “most expensive house in the neighborhood.” Years ago when I was shopping for my first house, my Grandpa Ben gave me this advice: “Don’t ever buy the most expensive house in the neighborhood. There’s only one way the value of that home can be affected by the other homes around it, and that’s down.” While it was solid real estate advice to be sure, Grandpa Ben’s words apply even more profoundly to our relationships (in fact, Change Your Neighborhood is an Activator from my book with the same title).
If you have more experience (and value) than the members of your circle, your continued affiliation with them will cause your professional value to decrease (move toward mediocrity) over time.
This is why it’s critical to deliberately surround yourself with people who are more accomplished than you, who make you a little (or a lot!) uncomfortable by challenging you, and who help you grow. By taking this approach, your capabilities and value will continually increase over time.
Once you’ve evaluated the behaviors, results, and relationships within your firm, it’s time to focus on your own performance and results. After all, as a leader, what you say and what you do are invisibly, but constantly observed, scrutinized, and evaluated by every member of your team.
Employees consciously and unconsciously take behavior cues from their leaders. In other words, they model their actions, words, and tolerances after YOU. Therefore, if you accept mediocrity in yourself, you’ll unknowingly send the message to your team that it’s okay for them to be the same.
You must lead by example to create the impetus for others to follow. This includes what you SAY, what you DO, and what you TOLERATE in yourself.
Here are a few examples to consider: Do you embody your firm’s Core Values and consistently talk about them with your team? Do you hold yourself rigorously accountable for meeting your objectives? Are you transparent about communicating with your team? Are you a giver or a taker?
Your answers to these questions–the reality of your own day-to-day behaviors–is where you’ve set the bar for your team. Do as I say, not as I do won’t cut it.
In his book Wealth of Words, mentalist Amit Kalantri wrote: “If you do anything with mediocrity, you will do everything with mediocrity.” Regardless of where or in whom it occurs, mediocrity is a dangerous weed that must be plucked before it chokes your firm.
As you proceed, stay grounded in the reality that you are both the obstacle AND the solution to creating the team, the culture, and the results you desire.
Although there are plenty of excuses for accepting mediocrity, all of them yield the same results. Take a page from The Weakest Link and be merciless in showing mediocrity the exit.
Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.
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