Why Do Leaders Seek Mediocrity?

By John Grubbs

While conducting research for my upcoming book...

“Idiots Love Mediocrity”, I have discovered some powerful reasons that explain why leaders seek mediocrity rather than excellence for the organizations they serve. Surprisingly, the challenge for excellence is often “not more difficult” to achieve. It simply requires a different mindset when presented with a problem.

Our leadership and the values we present to the organization are less obvious in our day-to-day activities and more evident to our subordinates when we reach an obstacle. In other words, the followers watch our response as a way of deciding how to behave in the event they confront a similar situation. Even more revealing about human nature is the fact that we can “say and aspire for one thing” and then do something very different under stress. Most of us have experienced the regretful moment when we actually become “our parents” in certain difficult situations.

Why do we think one way and behave in a completely different manner? I have watched thousands of leaders in my classes “say” the right things and then hear of the amazing “idiocy” in their actions either before or after our meeting. How can these seemingly smart and capable leaders act so horribly? They seem so smart and so talented in my class. What actually changes afterthey leave the protection of the training environment?

Life is like playing a competitive game of sports. We seldom get a “do over” in real life. It is impossible to “unsay” that horrible thing or “undo” the lost temper in a given situation. In training, the learning environment is like “practice”. The consequence of being wrong has little to no impact on the person directly. Missing a ball in the batting cage is very different from being the batter in the batter’s box when the game is on the line. In the practice situation, we know another ball is coming and we can try again. We are more comfortable making the mistake that we know can be corrected. Training and development gives people the “muscle memory” to make a better decision when the challenge is presented.

So, why do we seek mediocrity instead of excellence in a moment of crisis? The normalcy bias explains a great deal about how we respond in those tough situations. What is the normalcy bias? The normalcy bias refers to an extreme mental state people enter when facing a challenging situation. It causes people to underestimate the both the possibility of a challenge occurring and also its possible effects. It also results in the inability of people to cope with a problem once it occurs. People with a normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before. People also tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation.

Translated into business terms, the normalcy bias is what causes leaders to correct to what is comfortable rather than to excellence. In a challenging environment, leaders will seek the comfortable (no matter how mediocre) rather than the change needed to prevent failure. Leaders may even lose their job or steer the organization into failure rather than making the necessary changes to be successful. Simply put, the idiots in our organizations may actually be predisposed to behave with mediocrity rather than excellence. While understanding “why they behave that way” doesn’t make us feel any better, we can certainly learn to predict the response.

The proper situational training can limit the impact of the normalcy bias by placing leaders in tough situations and then allow them to reflect on their actual response. The more this is practiced, the more likely the leader will make the best decision in a challenging situation. Remember, the response to stress is what needs to be practiced. Application of knowledge under stress is the key to organizational excellence.