Cigarette packets carry the warning that smoking kills. At least you’ve been warned. We need a sign that says: “Incompetence kills. Likely to cause stress, loss of confidence and feelings of despair. Long-term effects of incompetence are a team that distrusts you with potential for conditions of hostility.”
Mediocrity is a common problem in the workplace and many of us, including managers, often make it worse. We assume a lack of work ethic.
To paraphrase leadership and management expert Steven Covey: “Working harder with a faulty map only gets us nowhere faster.” The mind-set that it is hard work alone that yields higher returns is like hoping that if you worked hard to pour water in a volcano it would not erupt.
A lack of high performance leads to back-biting, gossip, conflict, absenteeism, loss of productivity and low retention rates that infect the culture of an organisation. It breeds fear, resentment and contempt. This is not a culture that cultivates excellence. Over a long period of time, this leads to “team mass destruction”.
Factors that make a big difference in generating excellence are: the strength of relationships, happiness factors, innate talents, habits, perspective and the patience to practise and practise and practise.
Humans have two basic needs: to “look good” and “be right”. These needs, unmet, may produce similar fight-or-flight symptoms to a physical threat.
What you are seeing in someone struggling is not laziness or lack of care. These are symptoms of something bigger. I believe every human being has a deep yearning to excel. Sometimes, though, when faced with what appear to be insurmountable obstacles, people lose spirit.
Our social world can determine our success. The Hawthorne experiments, conducted at Harvard University from 1927 to 1932, showed the social dynamics of the company influenced productivity levels.
We spend most of waking life in the workplace. It is home away from home.
Many clients I work with seem to falter when they no longer feel valued. According to management thought leader and best-selling author Marcus Buckingham, the most important relationship of all is between supervisor and employee. He says people leave managers not companies.
While the Hawthorne experiments showed any attention is better than none, Buckingham’s research shows positive reinforcement matters far more.
In my experience, there is a gradient of what works. At the bottom of the ladder is no attention at all.
The next rung is negative attention. People perform better with negative attention rather than none. A manager who has a hyper-critical style teaches people that it pays to do just well enough to keep the job but not so well that they become unseen.
At the top of the ladder, is sincere positive reinforcement. Great sales teams celebrate any small win. Some sales managers teach their teams to celebrate just making the calls. These teams do exceptionally well.
Negative reinforcement without the positive breaks confidence. Buckingham recommends that for every negative feedback there should be five positive feedbacks. Positive feedback generates the feel-good factors that build and energise. It teaches people that action matters.
Shawn Achor, an award-winning teacher, researcher and author on the connection between happiness and success, discovered in over a decade of research for Harvard University that people who were happier not only achieved success over a lifetime, but companies that knew this were able to raise their profit, accuracy, sales, productivity, and so on. People who were unhappy were either mediocre or experienced short-terms wins.
Like Buckingham, Achor says strong relationships in the workplace, perceptions and positive reinforcement generate the right happy feelings for excellence. Some of the pay-offs in the workplace are being more solution-focused, seeing more opportunities and a greater resilience. People work faster, more efficiently. The bonus is their enthusiasm is infectious.
And it’s not only employee happiness that counts. The studies showed teams with happy managers fared better than teams with negative managers.
Another requisite is talent. Buckingham, together with consultancy Gallup, researched thousands of teams around the world (including Top 500 companies), looking for what great managers do differently. He found that even if belonging is in place, if people lack the talent, over time they burn out. If someone does not have the innate talent for their main role, they are unlikely to do so in the next year, or even five.
Next on the list is habits. Some people have learnt bad habits. They may have enough talents to shine here and there. But their bad habits leave them hitting a wall. A decade later the wall has become a place of lost dreams. Good habits eliminate stress, mistakes and procrastination.
Then there is the role of perception. There are collective stories that exist in human thinking. One is: “I’m not good enough.” Anxiety about this impedes wisdom and action-orientation.
Others stories are: “This is FOREVER” and “it will NEVER change” or “this is going to affect EVERYTHING”. Challenges, mistakes and failures are perceived as permanent and pervasive. Pessimism, inertia and hopelessness follow.
Yet failure is not only inevitable, but necessary for continued growth, creativity and mastery. Encourage yourself and others to let go of the apocalyptic mind talk. Without these thoughts we can become unstoppable.
Finally, practise. In maths, I went from 16 percent to 98 percent in one year. My teachers and I thought I lacked the aptitude for it. We were wrong. Finally, a teacher taught me the art of mistakes and practice.
The same applies to mastering music or sales, admin or strategy, management or leadership. At first it’s fearful and clumsy. Then it’s boring. But the effort pays off. Now the talent flows into brilliance with little thought to the how.
A workplace environment that cultivates a culture of patience and enthusiasm for this will find a team that not only produces excellent results in less time, but a team that perseveres in the worst of times, that loves working together, and a team that grows and glows.
Jo Ann Ntsebeza is a coach and speaker on outstanding relationships and workplace practices. Visit