What Great Bosses Know about Mediocrity

Thirty-plus years ago, the gentleman who took the risk of putting me in charge of a newsroom offered some advice about setting and maintaining standards. “Mediocrity is a curse,” he told me. “You’re too kind to fire it and you don’t dare promote it.”

Those words echo every time I work with bosses who are trying to honestly assess and improve the performance of a team and its members. They face the challenge of managing people whose work might be described as:

  • Uninspired
  • Formulaic
  • Lackluster
  • Average
  • Not awful, but never great

In fatter times, managers might not have viewed “average” as a major challenge. If the so-so players stayed out of trouble, their bosses could let things coast along, focusing instead on genuine underperformers and daily organizational brush fires. But times aren’t fat. Managers are being asked to justify every position on the team and expect them not only to perform well, but often to add new duties.

So, is this a call to jettison people who aren’t perfect? Not at all. Fighting mediocrity begins with making certain that managers aren’t contributing to it themselves. When assigning a “C” grade to a player, it’s important to ask these ten questions:

  1. Have I been clear with this person about roles and responsibilities?
  2. Have I communicated our standards of quality and how they are measured?
  3. Have I provided regular performance feedback?
  4. Have I avoided tough conversations with this person, and instead settled for “workarounds” of his or her performance?
  5. Have I provided training to help fill gaps in this person’s skill set?
  6. Have I enlisted the help of managers or peers to help this person improve?
  7. Have I communicated the urgency of the need for better performance?
  8. Have I discussed the potential consequences of continued mediocre performance?
  9. Are there ways this person is contributing that I haven’t taken into account?
  10. Might this person have skills that I haven’t fully identified?

Too often, I find that absence of feedback and training lead to the presence of workarounds. What do I mean? I mean offloading of some of the person’s work to another or crafting schedules and assignments that minimize the impact of a mediocre staffer’s shortcomings.

None of these are good for the individual, the organization, and certainly not for others on the team who are picking up the slack. These days, employees want to know that if they are working harder than ever, the whole team is doing the same.

In the end, after answering the 10 questions, you may have to ask yourself a few more. What’s your responsibility for the mediocrity and what can you do about it? If you’ve diligently tried to help the person grow, to no avail, then ask yourself one more tough question: Knowing what you know about the situation, would you hire this person if he or she applied for a job today? If you can’t say yes, you know it’s time to stop accommodating mediocrity.

Do you struggle with how to raise the game of middle-of-the-road performers? I’ll share a few more tips in today’s podcast: “What Great Bosses Know about Mediocrity”:

Poynter’s “What Great Bosses Know” podcast is sponsored by The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and everywhere.

You can subscribe to this podcast via RSS or to any of our podcasts on iTunes U.

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