Writing and thinking about management have tended to be highly polarized along an axis of success and failure. On the one hand, we tend to spend a tremendous amount of time on managers who seem to be very successful, and therefore worthy of the epithet “leaders”. On the other there is no lack of analyses of different kinds of failures, be these technological, financial, or moral. Reading management text one could easily be led to believe that the field is a dramatic one, characterized by great successes and horrible failures. What everyone with any experience with management and companies will understand on an innate level is that this is far from true. Management life, or life with management, is not characterized by peaks and throughs. Instead, its most characteristic attribute might well be mediocrity.
This is a claim that is sure to annoy quite a few managers, but at the same time, it will resonate with many people. Most managers are neither amazing and charismatic nor terrible monsters, but decidedly average and ordinary. I state this not as a moral judgment, but as a fact – mediocrity is the normal state of affairs, yet there is little thinking in management theory or punditry about what this might mean. Just like boredom, mediocrity is one of those tricky philosophical categories that seem resistant to easy definition. We recognize it when we see or experience it, but it doesn’t appear to us as a clear category but more as an affect. We have a feeling of mediocrity more than we definitively recognize it.
The reason for this might be that mediocrity, particularly in fields of directed action such as management, appears as a lack. We feel a lack of leadership, a lack of attention to detail, a lack of intelligence, but as long as it doesn’t get to the level of pathology, it doesn’t appear as its own category. We might see that a manager fumbles, doesn’t quite get things done, presents shoddy work, but we cannot point to one specific thing which would explain it all. Whilst we might point to a pathology such as narcissism, sadism, or psychopathic tendencies in a bad leader, mediocre management is just… off. Not fully present, positively or negatively. In the same way as boredom can be understood as a lack – of meaningful work, of something to occupy one with – mediocrity in management exists because something else doesn’t.
This does not mean that mediocre management lacks an effect. On the contrary, I contend that mediocre management may be just as toxic as horrible leadership, and possibly even more so. Whilst we can learn to live with a monstrous leader and develop defense mechanisms against such toxic leadership, mediocrity can be far more insidious. Why? Toxic leaders are often recognized as being such, and this can create numerous strategies of resistance. Toxic leaders build communities through negation, as those suffering under one band together and help each other. Strategies regarding how to mitigate their worst tendencies tend to flourish, and people start to deploy tactics such as limiting information, seeking out new alliances, and manipulating the leader in order to make due. With mediocre leaders, this doesn’t necessarily happen, as their very averageness makes it difficult to rally an effective defense. Mediocrity also tends to breed mediocrity, and whilst the negative effects may occur slower than in e.g. the case of a psychopath as a leader, accumulated mediocrity can be even more damaging than a singular “bad, but known, apple”.
Consider General Electric, a company which was once fêted as the very pinnacle of management success. Much has been written about Jack Welch’s rank-and-yank approach, where the worst-performing 10% were to be fired annually. The logic that the top 20% are rewarded and the worst performers punished has been discussed in detail, but the discussion has often missed the majority – the 70% that were judged as being “adequate”. Welch’s system has been described as a process that pushed excellence, even by the people who saw it as too harsh, but I contend that we could see it as an engine of mediocrity instead. By ensuring that you, were you comfortable with your position in the organization, only had to ensure you weren’t in the bottom 10%, GE in effect solidified the position of the mediocre. Over time, this ensured less creativity, faith in the system, more of the same old, same old. As GE started experiencing problems, e.g. with Power and Capital, the by now set sediment of mediocre managers ensured that no quick fixes would be enacted, and all serious change resisted. While everyone was looking for the bad guy, a clear villain, the problem was that no-one had tried to counteract the growing force of meh in the organization.
This is something I’ve seen time and time again when working with companies. Not villains, not monsters, but something far more ordinary. A creeping mediocrity, and the acceptance of the same, which slowly but surely turns the organization slow, stale, and slovenly in strategy. Incentive-systems that are designed for the extremes, not the majority. An unwillingness to address the problem of mundane lacks of skill, capacity, activity. You might think about your own organization, and consider whether it too contains engines of mediocrity, processes that may weed out the most egregious problems but at the same time create safe havens for more ordinary failures.
So how can we combat mediocrity? That is the difficult question. As it can be tricky to define exactly, even in local instances, it is difficult to meet head-on. One strategy would be to start talking about the problem of mediocrity, the sins of averageness, the challenge of mundane maladies. It has often been said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and here this might be truer than in many other cases. We need to shine a light on the issues of slow rot, the more trivial tragedies. This isn’t easy, for it hits very close to home. It isn’t easy, for in starting to weed out mediocrity, we may recognize that few of us are wholly innocent. Yet at the same time, it is an important fight to take. The cream tends to rise to the top, and truly toxic people tend to get their comeuppance – if not always as quickly as we’d like. Mediocrity, however, has tremendous staying power.
This brief note of course does little to combat the massive issue of mediocrity and mediocrities in management. It isn’t even written as a solution but as a wake-up call. Management thinking, which has a magpie-like tendency to always go for the shiniest of objects, has long ignored many of the most central themes and phenomena in the field it claims to be thinking about. Mediocrity, whilst important and ever-present, represents everything that management thinking wants to avoid – it is difficult to define, does not represent an extreme, and doesn’t lend itself well to pithy one-liners. As a result, management thinkers and researchers have ignored it almost completely. One of the very few attempts to grapple with the topic, an article entitled “What Is Managerial Mediocrity? Definition, Prevalence, and Negative Impact (Part 1)” by Evan Bergman and Jonathan West (Public Performance & Management Review (2003), 27(2): 9-29) has according to Google Scholar been referenced 17 times in the last 17 years. I don’t know about you, but I feel that mediocrity in management may occur more than once a year…
A leader is often seen as someone who pays attention to the big things. The vision, the mission, the fires that need putting out, the must-win battles. In such a view, mediocrity simply isn’t important enough for a leader to have time to bother with. It’s an understandable notion, but a dangerous one. Many little things become one big thing. Lots of mediocrity weighs an organization down. Not paying attention exacerbates the situation, so you need to start paying attention. Call it out. Name it. Give examples. Start thinking about it. We’re all complicit if we don’t.
Mediocrity may be philosophically complex, difficult to define, and trickier still to shift – but it is there. It is with us, as a dimension to management beyond good and evil. It deserves theorization, study, attention, particularly in an age when both organizations and society itself are attempting a reset and a rebuilding.