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How to prevent your business from slipping into mediocrity

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Defined as “ordinary”, “only moderate in quality” or “barely adequate”, it’s surprising how easy it is for a business to slip into mediocrity. From lacklustre customer service to lukewarm employee engagement, you’ll feel it at every touchpoint, and it rarely improves as you delve further into the business.

Whether it stems from fear or a lack of confidence, isolated instances of slap-dash behaviour can quickly become the norm. Then it becomes a backwards slide. As a leader, you may even be unconsciously condoning such behaviour through your own actions and behaviour.

Mediocrity quickly gets trashed by the market. It cannot withstand competition. We’re living in such an informed age that even a great product will struggle if it’s coupled with poor service. If people think that they’re dealing with an average business, they quickly turn away.

Identify warning signs

Regular lapses in focus, deadlines not being met, failure to prioritise, punctuality – not just in the morning, but at meetings – all of these point to disengagement, a lack of respect, a disregard for peers and for the work. 

Be mindful of your own behaviour. Are you simply too tired to engage in situations that could result in conflict? Take a step back or consult peers if you’re facing a tricky decision. Watch that you’re not allowing “busyness” to mask complacency or avoiding a difficult course of action in favour of what you do best. Are you doing what you’d prefer rather than what’s strategically vital to the business? 

Set a high performance benchmark

Do this by modelling. The leadership team should set a standard that everyone else can emulate. Using a coach or attending a course will help you to develop consistent behaviour that can then be cascaded through the organisation.

Your standards should be visible in everyday things such as timeliness and delivering on promises, as well as the integrity with which you do business. Recognise and link these behaviours to the bottom line. Don’t allow anything to slip – it’s a question of consistency and instituting a no-compromise attitude that becomes ingrained in the company culture. It should be held in great pride and recognised as something that keeps the business healthy.

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This might all sound rigorous, but it can be liberating because it empowers people to excel. 

Create a culture of optimism

If people are confident, inspiration flows and “good enough” is no longer the baseline. When people realise what is expected, they’ll rise to the challenge. You’ll get a huge outpouring of innovation

This comes when you treat employees like adults: 98 per cent of the workforce has a natural pride in what they do. Unfortunately, businesses too often legislate for the two per cent that don’t care. 

Set high expectations from the outset: ensure new recruits share your standards or bring even higher ones. Reinforce them regularly during induction, appraisals, 360-degree training, and in one-to-ones. Celebrate the achievement of high standards through reward systems and recognition. The best organisations self-enforce: teams aren’t afraid to point out their own shortcomings.

Don’t, however, become too obsessed with perfection – it’s more about pragmatism.
This approach gives a huge amount of power to the individual: it demonstrates trust and rewards personal initiative. The result is a great work ethic. 

Stop the slide

Address issues that need changing and nip complacency in the bud. Fear of the unknown or a reticence towards underperformance can be paralysing: the thought of replacing a longstanding employee may be in a box marked “don’t open”. You may hope they improve – they were great once, a real asset to the company. Overcome your reluctance by dealing with issues on the spot, and with specific feedback – ideally in confidence, but always there and then. 

Maintain the momentum

Define what stakeholders consider mediocre against your own benchmarks for service, performance and engagement. All great brands look to go one step further all the time. When great service becomes the norm, staff need to go one step further to keep refreshing what they do. But don’t allow this to become “initiative-itis”. Strike a balance between destroying what works and staying sharp: sometimes, core activities can stay the same, while peripheral ones can be refreshed.

Play a game of inches. If mediocrity is attrition, excellence is in the accumulation of marginal gains. Don’t just focus on Eureka! moments or big breakthroughs. Sometimes, it’s the small things that make the difference.

Andrew Morris is CEO of the Academy for Chief Executives.

Image: Shutterstock

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