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Leaders – Are You Choosing Mediocrity?

In my discussions with team leaders whose teams would be considered mediocre by any reasonably objective standard, I consistently received two answers to questions about the people dimension of their team’s performance. The first, a form of reality distortion, is the more psychologically interesting. Many team leaders consistently rated themselves and their teams as better than average — even when presented with evidence that showed the effectiveness of their team, and the performance of individuals on it, to be average at best versus peer teams. This phenomenon is known as cognitive bias. For team leaders that demonstrate this bias, the results are predictable – a lack of learning from mistakes and stunted improvements in people’s performance. The second common answer was more aligned with reality, though it reflected a reliance on blaming others for their situation: “… unless someone is performing really poorly, I don’t have time, nor do I get much organizational support, to do anything about it.” While many team leaders can relate to the challenges of overloaded schedules and unsupportive managers or HR departments, acknowledging mediocrity and doing nothing to address it is clearly not a leadership best practice.

When I probed further to uncover the underlying reasons for these team leader’s views on managing average-at-best team member performance, I saw that for many leaders the issue could be traced back to their early team leader experiences. For most of these people, their development as team leaders could be described as predominately DIY (Do-It-Yourself). DIY as an approach to leader development is not in itself flawed – with quality information, effort, and a supportive context people can learn to become great leaders. However, the challenge for most people is that they don’t know what they don’t know, and as a result, their approach to DIY team leadership misses several essentials – especially around understanding and managing team member motivation and performance.

The Challenges of DIY Team Leader Development

There are good reasons why professions such as medicine, law, and psychology have rigorous development programs. One is to ensure a minimum level of quality across the profession. Another is that developing expertise in any field requires an understanding of that discipline’s foundations and best practices. Leader development is no different. When organizations leave team leader development up to the individual, too few new leaders put the time or energy into developing their own point-of-view on leadership best practices. Moreover, they will rarely focus on using an external team development model to support their point of view, and benchmark how they are doing implementing it. Most will claim that they are too busy trying to survive and thrive in their new role. The result is inconsistency in team leadership practices across an organization, and team leaders who are more likely to fall prey to the reality distortions that come from cognitive biases or blaming others when it comes to assessing their team member’s performance. Unlike in a sport like tennis, where any attempts at reality distortion are stripped away by the end of the first set, team leaders without a best practices-based point of view, and a strong foundation for team development can rationalize mediocre performance over long periods of time.

Filling in the DIY Gaps

Digital technologies, the emergence of new global competition, and the expectations of the next generation of workers are but a few of the driving forces reshaping businesses around the world. For many companies, it is their teams and team leaders that sit at the epicentre of this dynamic landscape. Those teams will, to a large extent, determine where their organizations land in the distribution from mediocre to great. Yet, despite the importance of their role and the pressures to perform it well, the reality today for many first level leaders is that team leader development is mostly DIY. There are the occasional off-site training sessions, and in larger organizations there may be an online “University” of mostly webinars and links to articles. In most cases, the leadership models being used are relics of the 20th century with a focus on leader-centric hierarchies. The result is that DIY team leaders are typically missing three essential elements for consistently overcoming mediocrity and developing a highly-effective 21st-century team:

Team Development Benchmarks
A robust team development model is the foundation of a highly-effective team. Every leader’s team development model should have a checklist of fundamentals that include clarity of team purpose and healthy team norms – especially psychological safety and conversation equality; putting the right people in place to realize the purpose and deliver the team’s goals; and ensuring the optimal level of support in terms of resources, information, and training.
A Focus on Feedback
The interpersonal dynamics of a team have a significant impact on both team and individual performance. Strong, trusting relationships are essential for team effectiveness and individual well-being. Experience-expectation gaps among team members is a primary reason for deteriorating relationships and mediocre performance. For leaders, peer feedback is critical to eliminating mediocrity.
Understanding Motivation and Performance
Human motivation is a complex and multifaceted. Fortunately, work motivation is simpler because the context (the purpose of the organization and roles within it) has already been defined. Motivation then becomes a matter of each team member understanding the purpose of his or her role in the broader context; developing the capacity and competencies to perform the role and accomplish their purpose, and having the freedom to make a difference by fulfilling that purpose. To foster and maintain motivation and performance, team leaders must keep the three parts of that equation in balance.

Mediocrity is a Choice

For team leaders, adopting a team development model, and developing a point of view on team leadership excellence, is the key to avoiding the creation of reality distortions or blaming external conditions that lead to accepting mediocrity. With a robust team development model and checklist, a leader has the external benchmarks for objectively comparing his or her team’s performance across the important fundamentals that make up the foundation of a highly-effective team.

Regular peer feedback is the fuel that drives change. Team leaders who consistently identify and commit to closing team member experience-expectation gaps among their peers develop the one habit which will significantly impact team effectiveness. Given the opportunity, and framed correctly, peers will be diligent in calling out behaviours that prevent achieving the team’s purpose and their own goals.

Last, the path from mediocre performer to high-performance is one of mapping the purpose and goals of the team to the individual and ensuring that the team member has the competencies to realize that purpose, and the freedom to do so. If purpose doesn’t align, or competencies are not or cannot be developed, then the team member will not be motivated to improve.

As a team leader, you can choose the path to team excellence by developing the habits of benchmarking your team versus best practices, gathering regular team feedback, and maximizing team member motivation and performance – or you can choose to accept mediocrity on your team. As so eloquently observed by Aristotle “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

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Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurleyhttps://www.brainwarevault.com/
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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8 CONVERSATIONS

  1. I am thankful to Dennis Sir, for sending me this article as a special treat! Each and every word you said here, Dr. Jeb, resonates with my life’s experiences across multiple industrial segments. It is my personal belief that corporate culture plays a crucial role in both leadership and governance.

    I have also read with keen interest the valuable observations from seasoned experts underneath. However, I find absolutely no excuse for a leader’s lack of time and team management initiatives as his/her continuation in that role. Such person does not deserve to be where he or she is and must undergo sensitivity training without delay.

    Empathy, sensitivity, and compassion are all known to have helped defuse tough situations when tempers run high and chances of an unavoidable upheaval flare up. A true leader uses these traits to identify the weak link in his/her chain of command to set the score right, given the very first opportunity. Leaders take the bullet for their TEAMS.

  2. Jeb,
    Thanks for highlighting this issue. I recall students who used to think getting a D in a class was okay since they did not officially fail. Some of these students became employees who accepted mediocrity. But leaders never should accept it since it impacts others. Sometimes leaders who are working with poor performers feel that they can get to mediocre ones later but never manage to. I hope your blog will stir some to action.
    Mary

    • Hi Mary,
      The challenges some teachers face in their classroom is a great analogy. Even excellent leaders can be stymied by corporate cultures that directly or indirectly support mediocrity. I’ve found this to be particularly true in large organizations that mandate lengthy “performance improvement programs” and then disrupt recruiting cycles due to short term business pressures (the quarterly hiring freeze). Thank you for the feedback!
      Jeb

  3. Dr. Hurley – I have to agree with Ken – the leaders within and orgamization will emulate the person at the top. If the top leadership accepts mediocrity as the acceptable standard, that is what they get. Set the example and watch how your team begin to raise to the challenge to achieve excellence. Thanks for being this topic to the forefront. Check out my book – Leadership Matters: Advise from a Career USMC Officer. I think you will enjoy the real world examples I share that helped me build teams dedicated to excellence.

    • Hi Len, Thank you for the feedback. I will check out your book. In the course of my research on exceptional teams and their leaders I gained many powerful insights from USN SEAL teams and Israeli IDF Fighter pilots. I look forward to adding the perspective of a USMC Officer.

  4. “Monkey see monkey do” comes to mind. If a leader accepts mediocrity in one or more team members or reports then that soon becomes the standard that others adopt. I also think that teams are often used where there should be no team. It is a popular way to avoid or spread the responsibility of failure.

    • Hi Kenneth, Thank you for the comment. I agree that if mediocrity becomes the norm then the entire team will tend to regress to that mean. Perhaps more sinister from a team effectiveness and well-being point of view, when some team members maintain their high expectations, and their experience falls short, team relationships and eventually trust deteriorate and people begin to disengage.

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