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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 2, 2006

Mediocrity rules many workplaces

By Andrea Kay

I asked the young man stocking antacids in the drug store where I could find eye-care products.

"Down there," he replied, pointing to his left and turning back to his antacids. A 75-foot row stretched ahead of me.

Would it have killed him to share a few more clues, or even walk me to the section? Who knows, he may have even felt good interacting with a customer and really helping.

A petty example, but it illustrates what is sorely wrong with so many workplaces, maybe even the one you work in: Mediocrity rules.

You see it with workers who put in as little effort as possible to keep their jobs, and managers who see nothing wrong with that.

Research shows about 75 percent of workers in many companies only do the basics, says Susan David, a psychologist in the Department of Psychology at Yale University.

It's not surprising. Mediocrity is rewarded. So why do more? In many cultures, it doesn't pay.

"Take a risk and fail and you get smacked, while keeping your head down permits survival," says Rita McGrath, co-author of "Market Busters: 40 Strategic Moves that Drive Exceptional Business Growth."

But what kind of joy can you get from your work when you're scared to make mistakes, you're not challenged to do your best and your personal goals conflict with the culture of your workplace?

If you want more satisfaction from your work, you must be choosier about where you work and more aware of when you are afraid to go beyond the status quo. And that won't be easy.

"We're modern-day humans living with brains that have changed little since cave-man days," says David L. Weiner, author of "Reality Check: What Your Mind Knows But Isn't Telling You." Your brain's "status imperative" creates "the primal urge to defend, display or increase our status and to keep people and ideas who threaten that hierarchy down."

Therefore, many managers tolerate mediocrity because it is more comfortable and less challenging, McGrath says. Exceptional performance is seen as threatening, so many cultures breed environments where it pays to be mediocre.

If, though, you want more joy from your work, you'll need to brave the winds of mediocrity. Here, from various experts, are ways to do that.

Managers need to:

  • Be courageous enough to give tough feedback. This provokes the best from people, offers McGrath. Make people accountable and measure factors that drive exceptional performance. These include creativity and good judgment instead of time spent at work that has nothing to do with superior performance.

  • Approach others "with a spirit of acknowledgement and praise for what they have to offer," recognizing they are a work in progress, just like you, suggests Kathryn Cramer of the Cramer Institute.

  • Clearly identify priorities. Without that, there's a "hyper-urgency that's placed on even routine tasks," says Bill Treasurer, chief encouragement officer at Giant Leap Consulting. All things become trivialized, leaving workers to shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes and say, "Whatever."

  • Make it less risky to be wrong, without focusing on whom to blame.

    As an employee, you have to be willing to say what's on your mind, share ideas and be vulnerable. It will be uncomfortable. But most successful people didn't get there feeling comfortable.

    Excellence is the employee's to give, not the organization's to take, says Yale's David. "Employees go beyond mediocrity when they trust the organization, find their work meaningful and believe they are using and developing their talents."

    Make this the year that you won't settle for anything less.

    Write Andrea Kay at andrea@andreakay.com.