I am writing today about a topic that has bothered me immensely over the past couple of years. Striving for excellence is trumped (pun intended) by moving ahead with mediocrity.
Look at your everyday experiences – as trivial as they seem – like getting a coffee. We go to the branded coffee chains and accept what is served and often say ‘not bad’, ‘pretty OK’ or ‘better than xyz’.
The airline experience today is pretty much a case study of accepting mediocrity – at least it got us from A to B and it wasn’t as bad as <your least favorite airline>.
It goes for human resources as well. We have come to prefer a ‘good enough’ candidate over a great one. Look around you. Great candidates are not conformists, they bring different and bold ideas, they disrupt the status quo, they threaten the organization that is passively floating down the ‘lazy river’. Why would you want someone that could change the resting state of organizations? That means more work, more challenge and perhaps pose an existential threat to others.
It rings true in my profession as well. As a strategy and transformation consultant most clients are looking for ‘good enough’. Does it fit into our known business and operating model? Are we going to take leaps of faith and calculated risks? I compete with the big consulting firms – certainly not on my time cost – and mediocrity and ‘good enough’ is hard to compete with. That unfortunately is what is dished-out by the brand name firms.
In an organization setting we all are familiar with the Peter’s Principle – In hierarchies people rise to their level of incompetence. Do your job well, and you’re rewarded with promotion, until you reach a job you’re less good at, where you remain. Guess what, don’t be better than your boss as it is career threatening.
In a Dilbertian way you are sure to get promoted as soon as you are as good as the next worst person on the rung above you. This is basically the downward slide of the talent curve. We tend to reward mediocrity because it is a resting state.
The gravitational pull of ‘mediocre’ is pervasive and afflicts society as a whole. It is a cunning cat that disguises as achievement. Mediocrity cannot be fought with motivational quotes and requires rules for daily application.
Now you cannot apply these rules for every choice small or big that you make – we will end up with paralysis by analysis. For the significant decisions ask yourself – does this score 90% or above in at least one of the top 3 criteria? For example when deciding on promoting someone the criteria is the job requirements and not whether the individual is better than the current or outgoing incumbent.
Frankly, I wanted to write a satirical article – “In praise of mediocrity” but then I couldn’t will myself to be intellectually dishonest. I have been mediocre most of my life but I choose not to be anymore.
Dr Ajay Shukla