Accommodating Mediocrity

Do you accommodate ‘Mediocrity’ inside your Company? The answer to this question seems to be a no-brainer “Surely Not!” Mediocrity is the exact opposite of Performance, and unless one is into the business of “making it a point to fail”, then mediocrity and business performance cannot coexist.

Now, let us give a second thought! We all agree that mediocrity is NOT welcome in our businesses, but, do we accommodate it? The mere truth is “Yes”, we sometimes accommodate mediocrity and in some cases actually nurture it. Think of those employees in your company whose performance is – if it is being measured – below expectations, but who remain in their positions year after year with no serious action taken to enhance their performance or to phase them out. Think of all the team members who are not up to par and who hide behind the achievement of the whole team; I’m sure we all came across those during University years, free riders who never contributed to the project but who eventually got the Grade! These also flourish in our businesses. Not to generalize, but I would say that at least one name came across your mind when you think of ‘resident mediocrity’ in your Company.

My discourse in this article is not around whether we should host mediocrity in our companies or not – for sure we shouldn’t – rather, it is about why we are sometimes bound to accept a certain level of mediocrity due to contextual circumstances.

We accommodate mediocrity in many cases, but the ones that could possibly be justified are the following:

  1. Availability of Talent/ Specialization
  2. Inability to attract and compensate exceptional talent
  3. Emotional attachment to employees
  4. Inability to build a case against mediocrity
  5. Urgency and/or inability to find a replacement

Availability of Talent/ Specialization: Almost all businesses in the market seek to hire exceptional talent at a good price. Yet, the current labor market, and due to many reasons related to loose professional values, and not very robust educational systems, is not providing enough supply of this exceptional talent. This fact is binding some companies that are in dire need for employees to settle for mediocre talent and sometimes accommodate a certain level of mediocre performance to be able to maintain a functional business, at least on the short run. We’ve noticed examples of this in countries where the huge demand and short supply of talent could be a reason for accommodating mediocrity. Another case is with Businesses who have operations in unstable regions or underdeveloped countries.

In the same context, the high demand and low supply of specific specializations is another reason why some companies are settling for mediocre performers (to cover for their need in this specific specialization).

Inability to attract and compensate exceptional talent: mediocrity in many cases is sustained by weak Employer Branding and absence of Employer Market-visibility. Talent is attracted by good reputation and by companies that are known to pay high, provide development opportunities, nurture a positive environment, etc. Accordingly, if your company does not have a market brand as an employer of choice, then the probability is that you will attract a high percentage of mediocre talent that is unable to find a position with highly reputable Talent Magnets.

By the same token, this case also happens due to inability of the Company to compensate exceptional talent that usually expects above-the-market compensation. In such situations, some companies compromise quality talent for a more affordable breed with an assumption that experience and some training will enhance their chance of becoming star performers. This assumption is a bit difficult, but not impossible!

Emotional Attachment to employees: strange as it may seem, but some companies actually accommodate mediocrity due to emotional attachment to the mediocre-performing employee. Organizations are micro communities and people develop relations inside them. Employees who join early on when the company is a start-up, kind people who join at any given time, relatives, friends, etc. all fall under this category of potential emotional attachment. We’ve seen many businesses hosting people who are no more performing, and in some cases hindering the progress of the business, for no reason but emotional attachment. Many of the emotional attachment cases are also related to certain social and medical considerations. Companies in this context, maintain non-performing employees because of their medical condition, family constraints, financial issues and others.

Inability to build a case against mediocrity: interesting enough, many firms accommodate mediocrity simply because they have no tool to use for building their case against mediocrity. Proving that mediocrity exists requires having a clear, objective and consistently implemented system of performance assessment, something that many companies still are not aware of. No company can build the case against mediocrity unless it has a fact-based objective proof at hand; else, trouble and legal headache will knock the door! Even if they are aware of their mediocre performance, many of the weakly performing employees are either in subconscious or conscious denial, and hence the best way to wake them up is by having a clean case against their performance.

Urgency and/or inability to find a replacement: Unplanned business growth is a major driver for accommodating mediocrity. With a lot of opportunities in the market, many businesses rush for non-optimally planned business expansion that does not take into consideration the availability of required quality talent for their operation. And even if they consider this factor, their appetite and urge not to miss the opportunity drives them to settle for mediocre talent due to urgency. Also, the same dynamics apply for businesses that are aware of mediocre performers but still keep them due to absence of quality replacement, or as mentioned above, inability to afford quality talent.

No one can argue that mediocrity is not welcome, yet, as we proved above, we are sometimes bound to compromise mediocrity for business continuity, or for cost concerns, or for business opportunity. Is this a perpetual labor market dynamic? Well until supply of exceptional talent is equal to the demand for it, and until all businesses can afford hiring exceptional talent, or exceptional talent accepts to settle for humble salaries, and until business expansion becomes a meticulously planned exercise, and until we become completely unemotional beings, mediocrity will continue to exist in our companies.

Compensating for its existence can continue to happen by depending on resident exceptional talent, providing opportunities for mediocre performers to improve, and seeking a comprehensive Human Capital Strategy that hedges your company against mediocrity; yet, in all cases, mediocrity should continue to be unwelcome!