Dare to be average–it’s good for your health

Dare to be average! You’ll be a lot more emotionally healthy and live longer. Sounds like weird advice when a zillion books, blogs, tweets, and motivational gurus rant on about becoming great, achieving excellence, reaching for the top, and being all that you can be. When organizations and workplaces are vibrating with excitement over stretch targets, personal-best performance measures, and escalating productivity metrics.

I share this sacrilegious insanity after recently working with a client corporation whose emotional rivets were about to pop from their normally steely countenance. Their workplace was taut with tension and calmpersonal conflict. Systems, processes, and structures made as much sense as an Escher lithograph. Wheels were spinning and brains were boiling. After much discussion, we arrived at the following conclusions:

The workplace created a set of organizational priorities and goals that actually set “100%” as a targeted measure of success. Employee assignments were based on resources that did not exist (human, financial, technological, etc.), leading to dramatically inflated client expectations.

Employees were afforded little authority to make independent decisions, had vague responsibilities articulated through fuzzy job descriptions, but were expected to show maximum accountability–a recipe for managerial and employee madness and meltdown.

All this resulted in communication, collaboration, and coordination fortressed into protective silos of activity. Different teams would not share or ask for help for fear of losing competitive advantage in the race to achieve an impossible target and gain kudos. Even worse, individuals within teams, seeking to achieve that Holy Grail of “100% satisfaction” on targeted performance, became isolated and savagely competitive. Mutual trust was the first casualty with emotional and physical health close behind.

After much introspection and honest discussion, a very bold decision was made by my client. They would dare to be “average.” By this they meant:

As an organization, they agreed to get a grip on the real purpose of their existence. Stop over-promising, refusing to say “no,” and being all things to all who ask. They realized it’s okay to focus on what they did well and just keep doing it well. If you’re designing model airplanes, why make your “stretch target” landing a shuttle on Jupiter?

They agreed to create realities not fantasies or chaos for employees. This meant clear and updated job descriptions, expectations that are in line with experience and responsibilities, and consistency and fairness in communication and behaviors. They also came back to Earth with their performance expectations, vanquishing the silliness of attaining “100% satisfaction” to a range of services and instead adopting more sensible growth targets.

Senior management also agreed to share a lot more authority for independent decision-making with employees, thereby far better aligning accountability with responsibility and thereby removing much of the tension and strain that was responsible for demoralization, frustration, and workplace angst.

In short, the leadership agreed that it was okay to be “normal,” to be average in the sense of balancing expectations, performance, and promises rather than squeezing employees with an unrealistic and unhealthy “we must be super great” credo. Basically, they figured out that much can be accomplished and many successes achieved through a steady and sure pace along the sharp shoals of uncertainty rather than running full speed like a lunatic, only to inevitably stumble, fall, and bleed.


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