Could your organization be suffering from the disease of mediocrity? You wouldn’t be alone. It is a highly contagious condition that’s easy to catch and spreads quickly. It’s present in epidemic proportions in businesses today. The symptoms are finger-pointing and blame-gaming, excuses and justification for disappointing performance, vague responses, lack of teamwork, political games, and lots of time wasted on complaining. Unfortunately, these symptoms, if left untreated, can become habits that shape an organization’s culture over time.

The good news is that these habits can be broken and eradicated with an antidote called accountability. Let’s review the seven habits of highly mediocre people that make up highly mediocre organizations:

Habit 1: Don’t Take Initiative
Procrastination is the mediocre person’s best friend. This person thinks, “Why do something today that can be put off until tomorrow?” They won’t initiate change or improvement; rather, they wait for someone to direct them, to train them, or to make the task more enjoyable or easier for them. They believe deadlines are for other people who have to deal with really big consequences.

Habit 2: Forget About Mission
Mediocre people suffer from tunnel vision, think that their job has no correlation with anyone else’s job, and rarely think about the organization’s mission or reason for existence. They only show up every morning to collect a paycheck every two weeks. It doesn’t matter if customers are served well and satisfied, let alone delighted.

Habit 3: Blame Others
When something goes wrong, mediocre people are like Teflon—nothing sticks to them. It’s never their fault. Excuses spill forth from their lips faster than you can say “B.S.” Finger-pointing at superiors who didn’t give them enough time or training or resources, or at co-workers who don’t work as hard is a common rationalization.

Habit 4: Promote Self-Interest
The mediocre person has “WIFM” (what’s in it for me?) thinking before thinking about anything else. These people only volunteer to take on a project if it will benefit their career goals, or do favors only if they know their actions will be rewarded or repaid.

Habit 5: Don’t Listen to Others
This trait is found in people who refuse to consider new ideas or different ways to solve a problem. They think, “We’ve always done it this way” or insist on doing things their way. Their biggest fear is being told that what they are doing is no longer productive and that they might have to change.

Habit 6: Be Deceitful
When a mistake is discovered or evidence of bad teamwork is brought into the open, a mediocre person lies to cover up the truth. They might be little white lies to justify a situation, but these can grow into whoppers (just ask clients of Bernie Madoff).

Habit 7: Don’t Learn Anything New
People comfortable with mediocrity are afraid to learn new skills or new processes. Admitting they need training or knowledge means admitting to shortcomings and weaknesses. It’s easier to just keep on living in “denoidance”—the ugly combination of denial and avoidance.

If you are ready to forward this article to all of your employees and pin a printout to your manager’s wall, stop right now. This message isn’t for them ... it’s for you as the leader!

The habits of mediocrity cannot be broken by trying to blame others, but only by examining ourselves as leaders and our behavior in our organizations. And the cure is accountability—for our performance, for our failures, for our vision, and for our willingness to change. It’s not easy; I confess that I often exhibit these habits of mediocre people. That’s why I thought a reminder about leadership accountability would be a refreshing topic.

Recently, I read an excellent article on this subject, “What Ever Happened to Accountability?” by Thomas E. Ricks (Harvard Business Review, October 2012). Ricks, who has written five books about the American military, highlights his research into the management effectiveness of the U.S. Army from World War II to today. By studying the effects of institutional mediocrity, he provides insights and outlines implications and ways to instill accountability for business leadership.

According to Ricks, the pinnacle of modern Army leadership was during the days of General George C. Marshall, chief of staff at the beginning of World War II. Marshall was a “transformational” leader, says Ricks, because he insisted on accountability. He set high standards and then rigorously upheld performance against those standards.

Marshall insisted on getting the right people in the right jobs and the wrong ones doing something else. From spring 1939 to December 1941 he eliminated 600 officers whom he considered deadwood. They were replaced by more energetic and vigorous officers held to high standards of performance. The result was a military operation able to make good decisions, quickly adapt to changing battle situations, and eventually win the war.

By contrast, Ricks’ analysis of the army’s leadership during the wars of Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq/Afghanistan shows it as rife with political gamesmanship, institutional self-interest, and a lack of focus on the overall mission. He labels it “the lingering cost of mediocrity” and gives specific examples of how losing accountability led to major errors in strategic thinking and damage to morale and performance. He calls for all of the Army’s generals to be held accountable. Business leaders should learn from these examples to win their own battles in the marketplace.

It’s easy to let mediocrity become institutionalized. But you can restore accountability by having the courage to move the right people into the right jobs and to remove obstacles to achieving your objectives. Measure performance against the standard of a clear mission and reward those marching in line with it. Failing to do so simply enables bad habits of mediocre people and risks institutionalized mediocrity in your organization’s culture.

Mark W. Sheffert, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., provides investment banking and corporate renewal/performance advisory services. Contact him at mark@manchestercompanies.com.

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