Mediocrity: A Glass Half Full

Tom-McKinleyGuest post by:
Thomas McKinley

If I had a dollar for each time one of my entrepreneur friends said their staff was “incompetent”, I’d be a millionaire — or at least driving some type of Italian sports car. The word seems to roll off the tongue of an entrepreneur with dangerous ease, suggesting that it is a term which is constantly on their minds when they think of their employees.

Nonetheless, when I ask these entrepreneurs to elaborate, they often retract using the word “incompetent”, and instead substitute a different word: mediocre.

The term “mediocre” is thrown around pretty loosely these days, so let’s examine what it means. The first two definitions in many dictionaries are “ordinary” and “average”. Yet these two definitions come nowhere close to the negative connotation of “mediocre”. The word, funny enough, doesn’t even mean deficient or incompetent – it just means not exceptional.

A recent article in The Guardian, titled “Beware the Gravitational Pull of Mediocrity”, asserted that being mediocre is the natural state of the universe and also of the individuals in an organization. It also puts a different spin on evolution, stating that the law of “survival of the fittest” is really just the “survival of the non-terrible”.

“Entrepreneurs don’t just see the writing on the wall; entrepreneurs see the writing on the horizon”

The article struck me as cynical, and also as lacking in perspective — much like when I hear the term used by my entrepreneur friends.  First of all, theoretically it is not possible for an entire group to be “above-average”: no matter how advanced we become, there will be a top, middle, and bottom. What the article ignores – as well as many entrepreneurs — is a reference frame.

It’s all relative

Imagine hiring staff in the 1700s, where most people couldn’t read. Back then, being “mediocre” meant being able to sign your name with something other than an “X”, and having some – but very little — education. This changed slowly over the next 200 years, but even in the early 1900s, immigrants to the US were still signing their names as described above. It was an age of much less ability.

In contrast, we live in a period where the vast majority of people can read, use a computer, and drive a car; where multi-tasking has become the norm; and where people have accepted that a work-life balance, while something to idealize about, is not something to expect. Furthermore, we are not living in an age where mediocrity is given much tolerance. Employees are expected to learn at much more rapid rates than before, and job stability is low. People are ambitious enough to take on huge amounts of debt to earn university degrees, and the harshest recession since 1930 has made people feel lucky to even have a job. In short, this is a time in history where people are too scared to be mediocre. In the US and UK, this is a Darwinian age in which employees have to prove their worth each and every day, simply to avoid being fired.

On top of all that, the modern age is one in which people are least likely to be satisfied with what they have. Despite the fact that the recession was largely caused by greed, the pursuit of extreme wealth is more popular than ever. At least in the US, the concept of a rich workaholic is glorified, and people such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have become idols.

It should also be noted that millennials – i.e. those born in the early to mid 1980s — crave recognition and rewards more than previous generations. Gone are the days of simply wanting to coast through a job unnoticed. Mediocrity is as unpopular among employees as it is among bosses.

The antidote: Sharing your vision

What I often find myself asking entrepreneurs who complain about the mediocrity of their staff is,  “What exactly are you expecting from them?” The reply that I hear most often is, “For them to be like me.”

First, if you wish to work productively with your staff, you have to accept that they are not like you. As an entrepreneur, you are part of an elite minority. You have seen opportunities, overcome the fear of living on the edge, and taken the huge chance of starting your own businesses. Rather than just a risk-taker, you are a person of Vision. Entrepreneurs don’t just see the writing on the wall; entrepreneurs see the writing on the horizon. It is important to acknowledge that most people are not born with this characteristic. Still, most entrepreneurs forget to make this acknowledgment.

“You cannot have a protégé without a mentor”

Going back to what I said above, staff in this day and age are strong when it comes to technical knowledge and work ethic. You’ve got plenty to work with there. What staff are lacking, is that same vision that you have. Not all employees want to be entrepreneurs – which is probably a good thing. At the same time, any employee worth hiring will want to know the vision and objective of his company and his position.

Thus, if you want to have staff who can rise above being average, you have to take time to share that vision with them. Unfortunately, this will take some time away from meeting new clients and sending out emails. But with employees being more skilled than ever, the difference between them contributing in an average way and in an exceptional way is Vision. Without this, they will continue to be – from the entrepreneur’s perspective — mediocre.

Further, a way of transmitting this vision is training – something which entrepreneurs increasingly ignore. Remember what I said a few weeks ago, in my “Core Approach” article, about Cordiality being one of an entrepreneur’s core strengths? Training provides a forum for developing rapport and creating the “mentor” image. And you cannot have a protégé without a mentor. Entrepreneurs who refuse to train are forgetting that life, for most people, is an apprenticeship experience.

Finally, let’s not also neglect the psychological effects of constantly telling yourself that your staff are mediocre. You’ll eventually lose faith in them, and then either end up doing much of the work yourself, or repeatedly firing them, which doesn’t help the reputation of your firm. Instead of approaching your staff as mediocre, approach them as “capable but not yet enlightened”. Despite its negative connotation, mediocrity can actually be looked at as a glass that is half full.

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