When you first met your direct reports you told them your expectations. You explained that you are firm but fair; your door is always open, and that as part of a winning team, everyone should feel excited because it was going to be a great year.
So far so good, the problem is, they believed you.
At first it was okay. When they produced a good result, there were smiles and high-fives. Not everyone showed up to celebrate over pizza and a Costco cake. “ Too busy,” they said. The problem is, you believed them.
Soon, conditions changed. Demands from above, or the market, changed and not everyone got the memo, literally or figuratively. People began to see, sometimes Rob was late with deliverables, and no one cared, but Derek missed his first commitment, and he got written up. Meanwhile Sally, overachieved, again, and no one noticed. It was pointed out to you that you ought to appreciate your star performers, to which you grumbled, “What, am I supposed to give a cookie to everyone for doing their job?”
Thus, we have a convergence of lousy leadership and the acceptance of mediocrity.
We live in a culture where many of the things you want or need can be gotten. Yes, there are some systems conspired against your success depending upon your race, your gender, your beliefs, your geography, your school, your unique situation. Anything can hold you back … anything can propel you forward. So, without minimizing real injustices that exist, let’s acknowledge that relatively speaking, our challenges are small. Given this, high-performance should be easy. For some it is, but we do not ever give them a cookie.
Our society does not reward high performance nearly as much as we reward recovery or redemption. We instinctively tear people down, cheer for their underdog status and then fanatically burn cars as we celebrate their improbable victory while proclaiming that we always believed in them.
Smooth sailing seldom gets rewarded. What it gets is a harried manager saying,“What do want, a parade? It’s your job. It’s what you’re paid to do.” So puerile workplace drama and needless struggle make sense.
Be honest, many things in our world now come without challenge. This could be a significant human achievement we celebrate. Instead, we squander it. It does not sell well. Everyone likes a good story, and a good story has good conflict.
If there is not a challenge to overcome, no heroic journey to brag about, one of two things happen. You grow bored and let it atrophy, or you stir the pot and create conflict and problems until there is a worthy challenge to justify your position.
Finding a way out of this cycle is difficult. If you are stressed every day, dealing with the urgent and important, or more probable, the unimportant (Quadrants I and III in Stephen Covey parlance) it is natural to feel burned out.
You have drained your will-power reserve and lost your discernment, so you likely plop in front of a screen and let the soothing blue glow wash over you as you decompress. In short order, you grow accustomed to the characters you see there. Because they do not ask much of you, you grow to like them, and then, BAM, you have new role models. Soon you find yourself using what little energy you do have, cheering or defending them on Twitter and Instagram.
Leaders make better role models. Find a way to go to the moon and beyond every year. Don’t lower your expectations because you want less disappointment, raise them and forgive imperfections along the way. Recognize not only greatness, but near greatness. Appreciate approximately right instead of mocking missteps. Know when to challenge idiocy and call out hypocrisy. When the opportunity arises, and your vision and passion are aligned, step in and step up.
You and the people you interact with are better than you think. Stop stifling your talents to meet the lowest common denominator and instead use them to raise the average. Find ways to celebrate high performance, with or without the drama.
Have you ever witnessed someone doing good work? It does not matter if it is a guy scraping gum off the sidewalk with a putty knife; people who are in the zone, or flow are inspiring. Their work is hard but looks effortless. Be that person more often, and celebrate it when you see it in others.
Karl Bimshas is a leadership consultant who collaborates with busy executives to improve the working relationships with their colleagues and direct reports to create high performing teams. He’s the author of “How to Stay When You Want to Quit; Strategies to get over yourself“.