Incentivizing Mediocrity

July 31, 2012

No organization would say they strive for mediocrity, yet so often they inadvertently reward employees for mediocrity and punish them for excellence. This slippery slope begins by attempting to define a job by the lowest common denominator of skills and responsibilities. Indeed, we hire for this lowest common denominator, and upon hiring we inform our new employees that they will have their performance measured, with an emphasis on executing in accordance with their new job’s requirements – job requirements that were determined through an examination of lowest common denominator expectations. There is often a hint at how an employee can exceed expectations, but no matter how this is presented it typically traces back to number of hours worked above those required. Having hired for mediocrity, set expectations for mediocrity, and offered incentives for longer hours which will lead to an eventual reduction in overall performance, we have successfully created a drone – a fungible resource that can be replaced or scaled a moment’s notice should the need arise. This, in essence, is the role of a middle management – to recruit and groom drones incapable of stepping outside of a company’s documented expectations.

But of course, your organization does not do this. No, you hire for exceptional talent, and encourage your employees to think outside the box in order to come up with creative solutions to difficult problems. Sadly, this is a lie you are telling yourself. Exceptional talent is very expensive, and seldom on the job market because, well, they are exceptional. You punish employees for thinking outside the box, because they will be fostering change, and change is disruptive, and disruption is the antithesis of a smoothly running organization. At best, you offer the banal complement of, “Good idea” and encourage them to document the idea for future consideration. At worst, you fire them for not focusing on their core job responsibilities, and therefore not meeting company expectations. Little thought is given to what the now ex-employee was attempting to fix, or why they were attempting to fix it. All too often, the employee was not focusing on their core job responsibility because they realized that in order for the organization as a whole to improve, they must attempt to address an issue orthogonal to their set job expectations. They do this because they want to focus on their core job responsible, but are unable to do so until the issue is resolved.

What makes exceptional talent exceptional? How did they get that way? Excelling at standardized education? A rote following of the rules handed to them? A focus on unwavering day-in-day-out steadiness of measurable progress? Not in the slightest. These exceptional individuals (that you now find yourself unable to attract) were once rebels within their organization, breaking free of the limits of their job description. They took risks, made mistakes, got in trouble, and kept going, and occasionally got fired. Now, when you look at them you believe them to be magical, as they so dramatically exceed expectations. They are not magical – they have simply broken out of the finely tuned corporate drone factory. By definition, this is what makes them exceptional. The question then remains, are they exceptionally good, or exceptionally bad? Not coincidentally, it takes an exceptional middle manager to tell the difference.


I would like to point out that if we work together today, or have in the past, my opinions may or may not have been influenced by working with you. Most likely they have been, but I have to say that to avoid offending people. You're so vain. I bet you think this site is about you.