The Mbomera Column: Dealing with mediocrity

By: 
Nomore Mbombera

A LOT of people spend their lives doing alright, not entirely successful… but not bothered enough to do anything about it. There are many ways and places in which mediocrity announces itself.  Sometimes it’s subtle and at other times it’s as loud as a gong at dawn. Whichever way it chooses to grace you with its presence, hidden or explicit, there are ways you can spot mediocrity, and the person who celebrates it, a mile away.

Some believe that there are those among us who are born with a strong predisposition to mediocrity. I choose to digress. Mediocrity, like all negative habits, is learned. And, like all vices, it can be unlearned. And when it’s full blown it only glitters to burst the pride of the owner, if he has any left.

Today we focus on mediocrity in the workplace, how it affects team performance and how to deal with it for the common good. The problem with mediocrity is that it’s not good enough to get you noticed, but it’s also not bad enough to force you to change. It’s just okay. And okay in my book is bad enough. You can be stuck in a rut for years and never really feel concerned about it.

It’s a tough ask if you work with a person who isn’t up to par, who never gives their best, or whose best is way below expectation. There are those who revel in averageness and barely bet an eyelid every time they pull a shocker result. To them, its commonplace. But this kind of behavior tends to drag down those within its orbit if they don’t flush it out.  It’s a real bummer when the success of the whole team hinges on the performance of one individual and said individual is as bad as they get.

If you are leading a team at work or anywhere, there are steps which you can take to correct the situation.

Constantly Highlight The Desired Behavior

Usually people who have an affinity for averageness do not know any better. It’s all they have been brought up to believe and it’s ingrained in their subconscious that the best way is to do it the way it’s always been done. No flavour, no passion, no innovation. Flat and drab. They have never been taught of the need for excellency and their bluntness is more a result of ignorance of a better alternative rather than outright incompetence.

The best way to deal with this group is to over-emphasize the positive effects of adopting a culture of excellence. The team goals need to be clear enough and easy to understand with what is considered “success” clearly defined. People tend to perform better when they are involved in an enterprise which they feel they can positively contribute towards and when their contribution is valued.

Start From Where They Are

Excellence is an expensive artefact and it’s really rather unfair to expect it from oblivious people. Before a course can be charted to anywhere, you need to take note of your current location and agree that the current position or status quo is undesirable for meaningful progress to occur. Once these cornerstones are established, it’s easier to start from the level of the person (s) who need help in raising the bar so that together common goals and objectives can be attained.

This process has to be involving of all the concerned parties to secure buy in, as the treacherous journey to the top requires no shortage of commitment. Find out what their dreams are and the reasons they are in the particular job. This should be easy, mediocre people usually have no dreams, have nothing to aim for and do as little as they can in order to get by. Also people in the wrong professions do it only for the pay cheque. Granted, it’s tough for everyone but if you want that paycheck at the end of the month, you need to put in a shift every day of the month.

Reward vs. Punishment

Once all parties concerned are clear of what needs to be achieved, a consequences mechanism needs to be put in place as a constant reminder of the direction in which the team needs to be going. This is a proven tool in eliciting the desired behavior. But it is fraught with hidden dangers. The reward system needs to be fair and consistent whenever the desired result is exhibited otherwise the team will lose motivation.

Learn to reward the doers and, if need be, punish the underachievers. In this era of job scarcity and economic crunch, punishment may take extreme forms like termination/non-renewal of contract.  However, at the onset, extreme measures need to be avoided at all costs in order to build confidence where people can learn and grow without fearing the sack. Be clear and make sure everyone is clear of the rewards/punishment associated with any particular outcome.

Follow Through

Excellency demands execution and execution demands follow through. The single most cited reason why people find themselves on the negative continuum of the excellency scale, which is mediocrity, is lack of follow through. We all start with lofty goals and dreams. Teams spent long hours in strategy meetings planning to succeed. But when it comes to execution and follow through, the hole is so gapping you can see Mars through it.  When people do not plan to monitor and follow up on their plans they are basically planning to reap a harvest tainted with the commonplace. It doesn’t take a genius to come up with an excellent plan, but it takes a dedicated and committed player to see it through.

Take Care Of The Environment

I have been to many companies whose rhetoric on excellence and innovation is far divorced from practice. We need to realize that the reason why people blend in with the majority, the reason why they do not want to stand out is a very primitive instinct among most humans that show that we are, by nature, pack animals. Those that stand out or break the norm gets singled out, so in most cases it's safer to stay hidden in the middle of the pack, and receive no judgment. Some argue that standing apart gets you hurt, that it’s the thumb that gets hit with the hammer, not the fingers. Now when this feeling exists within the group, it is up to the team leaders to ensure that the environment is safe and allows individuals to excel.

Taking care of the environment means not only providing the right tools for excellency to manifest but also arranging the pawns in the right order to exhibit that excellence. Without the right environment it is nothing more than whistling in the wind. Albeit Einstein aptly put it this way: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Just For Today…

It’s not mediocrity to serve in your purpose in life and it’s not excellency to be the leader. Saul was good at slaughtering thousands, and David was good at slaying tens of thousands. Saul was cool until he heard the women sing about it and he lost the plot by trying to BE David! It’s not about being someone else, or being better than the herd. Run your race. Be the best that you can be in your sphere of influence.

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