How good are your management skills when it comes to mediocrity?

Four steps to making excellence the norm

When you ask a group to step up to high performance, you are inviting them to a place of stress.

When you ask a group to step up to high performance, you are inviting them to a place of stress.

 

The toughest test of a manager is not how they deal with poor performance – it’s how they address mediocrity.

Many executives opine in public about the need for “accountability” and “high performance”, then complain helplessly in private about one or two middling members of their team. Are you sure you’re doing enough to push for high performance? What do you do when someone’s work is good but not great?

These four simple but important practices can rapidly and profoundly shift a group’s expectations toward excellence. Each is a prerequisite for the next.

1. Show the consequences of mediocrity: Your first job as a leader is to ensure everyone is clear about what they are doing and why they are doing it. Find ways to connect people with the experiences, feelings and impact of good and bad performance. Keep the human connection alive by telling stories that illustrate work well done – or not.

And avoid impersonal and bureaucratic language when talking about performance; frame your work in human terms whenever you can.

2. Use concrete measures as influence: Mediocrity often hides behind a fig leaf of absent, fuzzy or excessive measures. In contrast, meaningful measures make poor performance painfully apparent.

Translating your grand aspirations to a minimum number of meaningfully measurable goals makes your team more likely to perform.

3. Establish peer accountability: Mediocrity is also often a sign of strong supervision. That may sound counterintuitive, but on top-performing teams, peers immediately and respectfully confront one another when problems arise.

There is no way for even the strongest supervisor to see and address every performance gap. The harder you try to do it, the more you’ll enable mediocrity. Once you’ve helped the team connect deeply with what they do and why, and established meaningful measures, you need to build a culture of peer accountability – where everyone can challenge anyone if it is in the best interest of the shared mission.

4. Speak up: High performance is a norm that needs to be defended regularly and vigilantly. There will inevitably be times you will be asked to make personal sacrifices to defend that norm. Maybe you need to call out the elephant in the room, address a poor performer or ask your boss for what your team needs.

What you do in these moments is a sign to the team of your commitment to high performance – and, therefore, your worthiness to demand it of them.

When you ask a group to step up to high performance, you are inviting them to a place of stress – one where they must stretch, where failure is possible, where interpersonal conflicts must be addressed. Rather than step into this uncomfortable place, some will watch for hypocrisy in you in order to excuse their retreat to safety. How you handle these crucial moments will either amplify or eliminate your influence. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017

Joseph Grenny is a best-selling author, keynote speaker and leading social scientist for business performance.

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