The toughest test of leaders is not how they deal with poor performance — it’s how they address mediocrity. Chronic mediocrity is a symptom of ineffective leadership, not of anaemic personnel.
Mediocrity is not permanent. In fact, one can dramatically turn around such performance in a matter of months through four leadership practices that lead to performance excellence; each is a prerequisite for the next.
- 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. Mediocrity is typically an evidence of disconnection between someone’s work and the consequences of their mediocrity.
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 these.
- 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. Leaders need to use measurable goals that are connected clearly and meaningfully to the work people are doing.
- Establish peer accountability. Mediocrity is also often a sign of strong supervision; on the weakest teams, there is no accountability; on mediocre teams, bosses are the source of accountability; and on top performing teams, peers manage the vast majority of performance problems immediately and respectfully by confronting one another. There is no way for even the strongest supervisor to see and address every performance gap. And the harder one tries the more it enables mediocrity.
The leaders need to build a ‘culture of peer accountability’ – where everyone can challenge everyone – if it is in the best interest of serving the shared mission. Regular reviews give opportunities for mutual feedback and establish peer-accountability as a norm.
- Speak up. High performance is a norm that needs to be defended regularly and vigilantly. There will inevitably be times when a leader is asked to make personal sacrifices to defend the norm. When a leader asks a group to step up to high performance, one is inviting them to step into a uncomfortable place of stress, possible failures and interpersonal conflicts. Some in the group will watch for hypocrisy in the leader, in order to excuse their retreat to safety. How as a leader you handle these crucial moments will either amplify or eliminate your influence.
The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes that individual ‘performance problems’ are far easier to address, if a leader has done the work of establishing a norm of performance excellence and peer accountability. These four, simple but important, practices can rapidly and profoundly shift a group’s expectations in a way that leads to both better results and a substantially more rewarding work experience for everyone on the team.