Mon | Aug 3, 2020

Francis Wade | The shock of low standards

Published:Sunday | July 12, 2020 | 12:22 AM


There are a few moments in your employees’ careers when they go into shock. However, it is not because too much is demanded of them – in fact, it is the very opposite.

In prior columns, I shared what sometimes happens when a recent college graduate joins the full-time workforce. Coming from an education system with extreme demands and standards, they encounter a rude surprise: individual efforts to excel are attacked by one’s peers. At the same time, their management rewards vague, dubious achievements.

Unfortunately, most newcomers fall right into place, frittering away whatever fresh energy they once had. They become like everyone else: comfort becomes the paramount goal. In fact, some firms set ‘making employees comfortable’ as an all-important attainment.

Not surprisingly, this is the very opposite of the way people relate to each other in high-performing organisations.

For example, military boot camp is designed to expose raw recruits to an environment of impossibly high standards as quickly as possible. This immersion is intended to surprise them – to provide a shock. When it is done well, it isn’t sadistic or destructive. The best rise up to meet the challenge while others are excluded.

I am sure that at some point in history, a well-intended general experimented with a more ‘comfortable’ path to basic military training only to see it rejected. Why? A battlefield is no place to discover that your colleagues are more interested in saving their skins than bravely following the mission.

The truth is that society doesn’t admire someone who seeks his own comfort above all else. However, this is a low standard that many companies promote during the onboarding stage.

But that is not the only instance where the battle is lost. Here are three additional episodes in employees’ careers that could be carefully crafted to show excellence.

First meeting

Sharon, a new employee, bustles into her first meeting to ensure that she is not late. As she opens the door, with moments to spare, there is no one else in the room. Five minutes later, the second person arrives.

The meeting eventually starts 15 minutes late, with several missing, including the convenor. The top executive, whose presence is required to make decisions, stumbles in even much later, still talking on his phone, without apology.

This everyday scenario teaches Sharon to surrender her college standard of arriving ten minutes before others to sit in the front row. Instead, she is encouraged to join a sloppy, mediocre majority.

First project

After a few months on the project, Jerome is confused. He can’t define the mission, and the last two status meetings have been cancelled. While he continues working on his deliverables, his manager has never asked for an update.

With extra energy and bandwidth, he turns his efforts to a start-up –a side-hustle he has launched with friends. That feels more real for some reason even though not a single penny has been earned.

First promotion

Fred was just promoted to the executive suite. While HR makes sure that all front-line employees have their annual performance reviews, their advice is ignored at this level.

He discovers that the managing director has been too busy (for several years) to schedule feedback discussions. She seems happier giving out random, public ‘big-ups’ to low-level staff than having substantial, confronting conversations with her direct reports.

As such, he has no idea how to improve his performance. Consequently, when a headhunter calls, he jumps at the opportunity to move to a different organisation which, he hopes, has higher standards.

No excuses

Perhaps you are reading this article, arguing that a tour company is not an army. True. But what would it be like to find and emulate the best-run organisations in your industry?

Maybe you would discover a common thread in all high-performing service clubs, sports teams, NGOs, statutory bodies, corporations, and even Bible-study groups.

Consider that there may be something in human nature that instinctively seeks comfort in relationships with others - rather than accountability – and that it destroys performance.

As such, your book club, which skilfully causes, or forces, its members to read the assigned books, is one that thrives, where others fail. This core ingredient, accountability, is the secret sauce that wards off the drift towards mediocrity. When you fail to repeatedly burnish it brightly, the worst will always happen.

The alternative is to craft high standards around key events that offer their own shock and surprise. While you will definitely lose those who are committed to their personal comfort, each one who remains has the opportunity to push others to excellence.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email