I have discovered some powerful reasons why managers seek mediocrity rather than excellence for the organizations they serve. Surprisingly, the challenge for greatness is often "not more difficult" to achieve. It simply requires a different mindset when presented with a problem.
Our leadership and the values we present to the organization are less in the day-to-day activities and more evident to our subordinates when we reach an obstacle. In other words, the followers watch our response to decide how to behave if they confront a similar situation. Even more revealing about human nature is that we can "say and aspire for one thing" and then do something very different under stress. Most of us have experienced the regretful moment when we become "our parents" in certain difficult situations.
Why do we think one way and behave in a completely different manner? I have watched thousands of people in my classes "say" the right things and then hear of the crushing "idiocy" in their actions before or after our meeting. How can these seemingly intelligent and capable leaders act so horribly? They seem smart and talented in my classroom. What changes after they leave the protection of the training environment?
Life is like playing a competitive game of sports. We seldom get a "do-over" in real life. It is impossible to "unsay" that horrible thing or "undo" the lost temper in a given situation. In training, the learning environment is like "practice." The consequence of being wrong has little to no impact on the person directly. Missing a ball in a batting cage is different from being in the batter's box when the game is on the line. We know another ball is coming in the practice situation, and we can try again. We are more comfortable making mistakes we can correct. Training and development give people the "muscle memory" to make better decisions when a challenge gets presented.
So, why do we seek mediocrity instead of excellence in a moment of crisis? The normalcy bias explains a great deal about how we respond in those challenging situations. What is the normalcy bias? The normalcy bias refers to people's extreme mental state when facing a tricky problem. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a challenge occurring and its possible effects. It also results in the inability of people to cope with a problem once it occurs. People with a normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before. They tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation.
In business terms, the normalcy bias causes leaders to seek what is comfortable rather than excellence. Managers prefer comfort (no matter how mediocre) in a challenging environment over the change needed to prevent failure. Executives may even lose their job or steer the organization into failure rather than making the necessary changes to be successful. Struggling managers are predisposed to choose mediocrity rather than excellence. While understanding "why they behave that way" doesn't make us feel any better, we can certainly learn to predict the response.
The proper situational training can limit the impact of the normalcy bias by placing leaders in challenging situations and then reflecting on their actual responses. The more this gets practiced, the more likely the leader will make the best decision in a challenging case. Remember, stressful situations are what need to get practiced. The application of knowledge under pressure is the key to organizational excellence.
Artificial stress in the classroom is the fastest way to prepare managers for stressful situations at work. We default to training or past practice. Practicing disagreement is essential to avoid routine passive-aggressive behaviors common in business. Mental sparring sessions with others can create the muscle memory to stop being so agreeable when you do disagree.
In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown discusses the near enemy of desired behavior. She contends that the far enemy of desired behavior is usually apparent. In a stressful encounter with an employee, a supervisor may not attack them physically. However, the supervisor may say something that humiliates the employee to prove a point. The far enemy is a physical action, and the near enemy is hurtful sarcasm in the form of humor. She contends that this behavior is subtle and based on emotions. The supervisor may feel embarrassed and justify the need for adverse action toward the employee.
Defaulting to what is easy is the mediocrity I am examining. Rationalizing mediocrity is a problem too many organizations are facing today. The need to train supervisors is an expense that gets avoided amid the great resignation. Organizations are at war to find talent yet do almost nothing to keep the good people from leaving. Doing more of the same and expecting different outcomes is the definition of insanity. The front-line supervisor is the battle line in the war for talent. She is the reason people quit and why people stay with your company. The paradox of losing employees while avoiding the cause of many resignations is prevalent.
Status quo bias is also commonplace in business. According to Cynthia Vinney, status quo bias refers to preferring that one's environment and situation remain as they already are. The phenomenon is most impactful in decision-making: we like the more familiar choice over the less obvious but potentially more beneficial options when we make decisions. The term was first introduced in 1988 by Samuelson and Zeckhauser, who demonstrated status quo bias through decision-making experiments.
While irrational upon examination, status quo bias is common in practice. It is the near enemy of mediocrity. It can be explained by the famous saying, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." I contend that things need to get broken to improve. Your organization's current mental schemas must get challenged to avoid the trap of mediocrity. For example, you may have an antiquated ERP (enterprise resource planning) system. You have convinced yourself that it is good enough. You avoid addressing the benefits of something newer and better that may provide more utility while saving time and money.
Does this hit close to home? Mediocrity is a disease in many companies. I do not blame the afflicted for their illness. I do, however, have concern for executives who know the affliction exists yet cannot or will not take action to get better. I understand the hesitation yet feel helpless regarding the many organizations suffering from mediocrity while being so close to something better.
The cure to this affliction is deliberate change. Challenge every person and system for the hint of mediocrity. Take ownership of change for the sake of change because it is the only way to improve. The 2020 pandemic destroyed my business for months. I found new opportunities to improve during the subsequent rebuilding process. I admit the improvements would have never happened without the coronavirus outbreak. What appeared to be a black swan event for my business was a white swan event. My business was fragile after eighteen years of doing the same thing. If you have not created significant changes in your business, I guarantee it is weak. Start breaking some things in your company.