Investment in Mediocrity: The Hidden Organisational Flaw

Mediocrity is not simply the absence of excellence. It is a state where the forces of , are dragging the organisation in the direction of dysfunction and ultimately disintegration. Leonard Carr shows us how commitment to real self-awareness and honesty will help us overcome the blind spots of mediocrity and help our organisations to flourish and grow beyond our own expectations.

Just as darkness is not necessarily the mere absence of light, so mediocrity is not always simply the absence of good or excellence. Mediocrity is in itself a state. I use the term mediocrity to describe a state where the forces of entropy are dragging the organisation in the direction of dysfunction and ultimately disintegration. Mediocrity is the result of not only unintentional ignorance, indifference incompetence and neglect, but it is often the result of intentional action and inaction driven by motives well concealed under the guise for striving for improvement or excellence.

The negative impact of entropic forces
In business, as in life, the forces of entropy that destroy creativity, inhibit progress and block potential are always competing for supremacy with the forces of growth, creatively and evolution. The forces of growth are life affirming, the entropic forces are inherently destructive. Both forces are equally real and ubiquitous. Both depend on the participation of people to succeed.

The forces of entropy, however, are generally more potent and viral in their capacity to gain supremacy and spread. The reason is that human nature is such that people prefer to conserve energy, maintain a current state, avoid discomfort and keep themselves safe. The forces of entropy arise out of fear, mistrust,emotional, physical and intellectual inertia, laziness, apathy and dishonesty. These forces are usually hidden or denied and result in what manifests at best as mediocrity and at worst as dysfunction and disintegration. When you have a mixture of entropy with pockets of excellence, the entropic forces drain the energy and sabotage the effect of the excellence. The system, therefore, still ends up being ruled by mediocrity.

All organisations have within them champions of excellence and those firmly behind the creation and maintenance of entropic forces. In other words, as much as you have people committed to and invested in superior performance and excellence, you also have those equally and necessarily covertly committed to and invested in maintaining mediocrity and even dysfunction.

Exposing the truth

The battle between mediocrity and excellence often occurs so covertly that no-one realises or would acknowledge that such a battle exists. Acknowledging this battle would mean exposing those who are invested in and support mediocrity and therefore calling them out on their true motives and intentions. Once the game is up, those who have do not intend well are no longer able to play it. The investment in mediocrity is therefore always well concealed and maintained by a tacit agreement between those on this side of the organisational dynamic to play the emperor’s new clothes and not expose each other. People secretly trade off to not expose each other’s inadequacies or dishonesty.

In a healthy ecology the battle would be clear. Part of the art of maintaining mediocrity is to muddy the waters so that the supporters of mediocrity actually masquerade as those who most want excellence. An example of how this can be achieved is to bring in an ineffective consultant or coach, or spend a fortune on some team building activity in an exotic setting that everyone knows will in the end be no more than a drunken indulgent diversion. Worse still, these diversion often lead to sexual indiscretions, often by the
champions of mediocrity, creating more mess in the company dynamics that then gets managed by creating yet more mediocrity spawning dynamics like secret keeping and pretence of respect.

The effect of mediocrity on the silent majority People like to get vindication for their ill-intentioned approach by pulling in others to support and validate their position. This is because people who support mediocrity and dysfunction obviously wish to remain righteous in their own eyes. By getting validation for a majority they can deny to themselves that they are acting purely out of self-interest and ill-will towards the organisation or to their employers. The silent majority get pulled in and exploited by the people who support mediocrity or dysfunction through appealing to their apathy, fear or greed. Apathy manifests in people being unsure, indifferent and general coasting along in automatic. Feelings of personal inadequacy or incompetence lead to a sense of
vulnerability. This fear makes the individual very vulnerable to being pulled in to support dysfunction, because it provides such a good smokescreen.

The methods used to win over the silent majority onto the side of mediocrity and dysfunction include, but are not limited to, behaviours such as:

  • Gossip and casting doubt as to the motives and intentions of those committed to excellence;
  • Encouraging dissatisfaction and disaffection;Spreading mistrust and poor morale;
  • Rumour-mongering;
  • Favouritism and divide-and-rule management techniques;
  • Ambiguous or ill-formulated instructions or inadequate communication followed by blame and
  • punishment for poor performance;
  • Stealing credit for others work.

Those who lead dysfunction
Mediocrity and dysfunction preserves jobs, facilitates promotion, maintains loyalty and admiration, protects power and influence and has many other great benefits for people who would never survive in a healthy company environment. The agents who initiate and maintain dysfunction can be bosses, HR practitioners, managers at any level or even consultants.

What is amazing about these people is they have a way of concealing even to themselves their investment in dysfunction in the following ways:

  • They specialise in managing up as opposed to down;
  • They create mutual mistrust amongst staff so as to divide and rule;
  • They scare or intimidate people in order to block their access to anyone who might be sympathetic to the employee’s view that all is not right in the company. This can be done by creating myths about how unreasonable and punitive the manager or boss is towards anyone who dares to tell the truth.

When the boss is dysfunctional this may be the truth. They can simply show that good profits prove that anyone who raises these issues is talking nonsense.

Stifling mediocrity and dysfunction to achieve true excellence

The first rule taught to any business consultant, should be, “never underestimate how much investment people have in mediocrity and dysfunction”. If we understand this, many management issues become transparent in one flash of insight.

You have to know not only what you need to do in order to achieve excellence, but also what you need to desist from doing. You need to know what you need to invest, but also what you need to sacrifice. Excellence is born out of coherence in values, thinking, actions and interactions. Coherence is the child of self-analyses and introspection, rigour, discipline and integrity.

For the achievement of true excellence, the forces of mediocrity and dysfunction need to be contained, isolated and where possible and appropriate, exposed and ultimately eradicated. The forces of entropy and dysfunction are contained and isolated by the people invested in excellence communicating with, inspiring and winning over the silent, often unconscious, majority of the organisation who because they are neutral can be pulled in by either side.

The silent majority need to be kept engaged and focused in meaningful ways, need to be clear about theorganisational values and objectives and should be allowed to experience the positive and tangible results of this focus. True excellence can only be achieved through self-awareness and accountability. For people who have got ahead through the use of bluff, manipulation, abuse of power, nepotism or any other means that was founded on dishonesty, self-awareness poses a real threat.

Similarly, those who have been able to work around or compensate for personality blind-spots, serious shortcomings or inadequacies and prefer to stick with just what is adequate instead of paying the price demanded by excellence, also have an investment in mediocrity. The longer people have been at their game and the more that they have accomplished through dishonest, disingenuous or illegitimate means, the more self awareness poses a threat and the more invested they will be in spawning, supporting and maintaining mediocrity or dysfunction.

The blind spots of mediocrity and dysfunction
Mediocrity is self-propagating because it results from an unconscious blind spot or a blind spot that is created through elaborate ruses and denials that conceal and distract people from what is really going on in the organisational culture. It blocks or sabotages any initiatives or attempts to create awareness or introduce change that would threaten those who in their own minds stand to lose from self-awareness or constructive interventions.

A blind spot is defined for the purposes of this discussion, as that which you do not know that you do not know, or that which you know, even if unconsciously that you do not want to know because that knowledge posed a threat.

Any business that wishes to be robust, adaptable, have a competitive advantage and therefore ultimately flourishing and sustainable, needs to understand this blind spot – the investment in mediocrity and dysfunction and their corrosive effects.

Find those who are truly committed to excellence
Investment in mediocrity renders an organisation vulnerable to attack from both the inside and from without. The first sign of this blind spot is the denial of the reality of what has been described in this article. An organisation committed to excellence is open, humble and curious to learn more about themselves and to get an added edge by discovering what they may have missed even in their biggest achievements and success.

The good gets better because organisations committed to excellence admit their fallibility and the resulting openness to feedback results in self-correction. The mediocre or dysfunctional get worse because they either fiddle or squabble while the proverbial Rome burns.

To try to sell change or improvement to people who are invested in mediocrity and in maintaining the status quo is like trying to sell penicillin to a streptococcus. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, management and even business owners are often part of the problem, if not the main problem. You know that you have fallen into this trap when you walk away from the conversation that you entered believing that you had a solid case for why the company would benefit from your idea and left feeling like you had lost the plot.

The key to selling a solid product or approach aimed at improving organisational culture and performance is to find those who are truly invested in excellence, the visionary leaders who have the power in the organisation and the will to champion for your product or approach to be employed by the organisation.

The key to overcoming blind spots
The key to overcoming the blind spot of investment in mediocrity and dysfunction is real humility and commitment to truth. Reality and truth are complex and multi-faceted and layered. No-one ever has a grasp or the whole picture and therefore all views are inevitably partial. The more transcendent and inclusive the version of reality is, the more closely it approximates the big picture. The big picture can only be acquired by allowing ones partial reality to be challenged and ones blind spots to be illuminated by other peoples contrasting views and perspectives.

Organisations that are humble enough to be curious and seek alternative views and perspectives, to respect all perspectives and to self-correct through sharpening their awareness and self-monitoring, will be open to examining and having their blind spots challenged. These are organisations that gain leverage from constructive and creative conflict because such conflict helps people to avoid the pitfalls of blind spots and self-limited perspectives.

Blind spots can be exposed in a variety of ways:

  • Structural and strategic blind-spots can be discovered and managed through methodologies like balanced scorecards or Ken Wilbur’s Quadrants;
  • Personality and interpersonal blind spots can be discerned by analysing the personality composition of teams and the worldviews of team members;
  • From this, one can discern some of the drivers behind the dynamics, as well as potential shared blind spots or the blind spots that lead to unproductive conflict and power struggles.

Answering some tough questions

In brief, people tend to approach the world through three modalities which are navigational/thinking; relational/feeling; and boundary/doing. Each person mainly uses one primary modality. The secondary modality is weaker and the third almost seems unavailable to them and is therefore inevitably a blind spot.

An understanding of the distribution of people in these preferred modalities can answer questions like:

  • l
  • Why do we spend so much time debating and why does everything we discuss remain theoretical
  • and ever get put into practice?
  • l
  • Why is there so little empathy in the way that we operate?
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  • Why are we always being mired in emotional issues?”

The same applies to peoples’ three preferred arenas of operation. These are social; pairing; and self preservation. An understanding of the distribution of people in each preferred arena of operation can answer questions like:

  • Why is there no team spirit or team co-operation in this group?Why is there no sharing of information?
  • Why do people need to share everything they do?
  • Why are we cliquey?
  • Why is it so difficult to integrate new members into the group?
  • Why do we find having to deal with people’s relationship or emotional issues such a bother?
  • Why are people reluctant to give or receive constructive feedback around here?

Knowing the distribution of actual personality styles through a system like the Enneagram deepens and refines understanding of everything from interpersonal dynamics in the organisation to strengths and blindspots in the performance of the organisation. Examples of dynamic issues can be conflicts, dissatisfaction with management or poor team performance. Examples of strengths and blind spots would be issues like decision making and translating theory or strategy into performance.

Understanding worldviews through the lens of, for example, Spiral Dynamics can help to uncover andaddress a whole new set of bugs in the system that have to do with how people hear and interpret each other. What sounds aggressive to one worldview can sound honourable to another; what sounds visionary at one level of worldview can sound fluffy at another. Leaders need to be able to identify all the languages and understanding of different worldviews, so as to be able to deal with each person in a language the person understands. This applies particularly to issues like management, giving feedback and incentives.

It should be obvious from this brief discussion that within the blind spot lies a fortune of potential that, if unlocked, can assist an organisation to flourish and grow beyond its own expectations in reaching potential. The key to overcoming the blind spot is to get an acknowledgment from the primary stakeholders that an investment in mediocrity exists and that only honest commitment to real self-awareness and honesty will take them to the level that would most prefer to be.

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