About a year ago, I was watching Meat Loaf’s horrendous performance at the AFL Final in 2011. Being a huge fan of the Bat Out Of Hell album, I recoiled in horror as the Meat mercilessly butchered his own material in a voice that sounded like a drunken Seal barking into a bathtub. Honestly, he didn’t hit a single decent note in the entire performance, appearing to sing in some strange skeleton key that only made sense to him. Very sad.
Being something of a frustrated musician myself (I’ve released 3 albums), I thought even I could do better than this tuneless travesty. Even I, possessed as I am of a reasonable but not exactly stunning set of pipes. In fact you could describe my vocal cords as the VW Golf of singing – they get the job done and have a certain amount of appeal, but you’d never call them stunning.
Nonetheless, I had a go at singing over Meat Loaf’s asthmatic honk and yes, I could do a better job. Hell, at least I was in tune and in time and I knew the words. But even if I could manage a marginally creditable performance and better the one delivered by the artist himself, you’d never call it outstanding. Far from it.
However, I derived a sense of satisfaction from my superior singing success. I felt good that I could render those songs better than a man with a voice that was about as functional and as tuneful as the Royal Albert Hall organ before its recent renovation.
It later dawned on me that this was no achievement at all. I was setting the bar low to say the least. What I was actually doing with my Meat Loaf singing challenge was trying to match or narrowly beat mediocrity. I wasn’t improving upon the way those songs are sung (under normal circumstances at least) and I wasn’t interpreting them in a unique and interesting way. I was just trying to sing them slightly better than average.
But I was proud of my mediocrity.
This scared me.
The Self-Esteem Problem
As followers of my blog will already know, I often talk about the effect of self-esteem on our behaviours and attitudes. Once again, let us consider the self-esteem problem.
As human beings, we are constantly engaged in a programme of self-esteem maintenance. We’re often unconscious of this phenomenon, but it affects at least 90% of our actions. We continually look for small pieces of evidence to support and enhance our self-esteem. In other words, we are continually trying to find new ways to feel good about ourselves.
What was I doing when I tried to sing those Meat Loaf songs? I wasn’t just trying to prove to myself that I could sing better than Meat Loaf – I was trying to make myself feel good about my singing abilities.
Now, the easiest way to feel good about your own abilities is to set the bar of comparison really, really low. This is what I did with my singing challenge. Start from a low base, then you will only need to expend a little effort to deliver better performance and you can make it considerably easier to feel good about yourself.
You may well relate to this. Perhaps you’ve compared your figure to that of someone who is out of shape, convincing yourself that you look great as a result. Maybe you’ve experienced a boost when you noticed that your neighbour only has a BMW 316i, while you have the 330D Luxury. Or possibly, you’ve gained some satisfaction in realising that your desk is just that little bit tidier than your colleague’s.
This behavioural trait dominates society. Its quite incredible to realise that people constantly make small comparisons between themselves and others within similar situations, looking for validation for their current level of performance in work, life or relationships. And yet people rarely try to make a leapfrog improvement in their own performance, or indeed their circumstances.
Comparing my vocal performance to Meat Loaf at his worst didn’t improve my singing abilities. It just made me feel better about my current level of singing performance.
The Consensus of Underperformance
Now think about your workplace. What is performance like within your team or even within your organisation as a whole? Does anybody ever really “stand out” as a a high performer?
Look closely and it is very likely that you will find that everyone performs to pretty much the same standard. Sure, there may be small differences here and there, but generally everyone will work to the same basic level. One of the reasons for this is that people reference each other’s performance and as I have said already, validate their own behaviour by using others as a benchmark. The effect of this is that they perform to the same basic standards – because everyone else is performing to those standards.
If it’s alright for Ben, it’s OK for me.
We justify our performance by observing that others perform no better than we do. This creates a cycle of the same performance repeated over and over with little to no change.
The end result of this is effectively a consensus of underperformance.
I remember some years ago working with a team who were underperforming. One day, I asked some of my colleagues to explain why they thought the team had underperformed for so many years. They said “we don’t really know, but we have noticed one thing which seems really odd”. Being the inquisitive guy I am (or nosy, according to my wife) I was intrigued to find out what that one thing was. This is what they said – “anybody who joins this team from outside always ends up acting and performing the same as the rest of us within three months”.
Once again, there was an unspoken consensus of underperformance. And everyone entering that team was quickly assimilated into it.
Breaking the Consensus
So what are you supposed to do about this? Should you do anything about this situation?
Well, imagine for one moment that everything you are able to achieve within your life is set to the same level as that of your neighbours. That is, you can only achieve as much as your neighbour financially. Assume for a moment that your neighbour is slightly worse off than you are now.
Would you voluntarily settle for this arrangement?
I imagine the answer would be a definite “no”.
To escape the limitations of setting your performance standards to the prevailing standards of others, you have to set the bar higher. You have to ask yourself “what can I do differently to make a bigger impact?”. In short, you need to become the disrupter.
So what do I mean by “the disrupter”? Well, I can tell you it’s not some hitherto unknown superhero that goes around butting into conversations. At least as far as I know. Let me explain what I mean.
It is incredibly common for situations to rumble along unchanged for extremely long periods of time, like a train on a straight piece of track that runs on and on forever. Without outside influence, they just continue indefinitely. To change their direction, something has to come along and disrupt them. For example, if someone puts an object in the path of the train, it may alter where it’s going. But unless that object is large enough to offset the momentum and mass of the train, then the rampaging locomotive will obliterate it and continue on its journey to oblivion. Make the object something with sufficient mass and energy to exceed that of the train and the 10:42 London Midland service to Same-As will change course pretty easily.
This is what I mean when I encourage you to become a “disrupter”. You see, mediocrity thrives on mediocrity. Disrupt the permanence of this mediocrity by dramatically improving your own performance and suddenly, the game is changed. The bar is raised. There is no longer a consensus of underperformance.
So here are four simple tips that will allow you to get started in improving your performance and becoming a disruptive but positive influence on your colleagues.
1. Don’t get dragged into negativity
Many workplaces are riddled with negativity – you’ll probably recognise this in your own situation. Constant negativity holds people back, restricts performance, keeps everything mediocre. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into this destructive behaviour.
Adopt a positive mental attitude and and live it out in front of your colleagues. Be the one to find the upside in situations, rather than joining in the indulgent complaining about why things aren’t as good as they should be. Become a leader within your team by showing your colleagues how things could be better.
Look for the positives and lead others in identifying opportunities for the future.
2. Seek knowledge
It’s remarkable how many decisions are made on a daily basis within our workplaces with insufficient knowledge and a lack of facts. Avid readers of my blog will recognise that this is something I raise time and time again. It’s true to say that many people make little to no effort to improve their knowledge on a daily basis. The result is stagnation and of course, mediocrity.
Become interested in increasing your understanding and knowledge on a daily basis. Make sure that your decisions are informed, give yourself confidence in your own abilities by filling your mind with useful facts and other information. Ask questions and do your research. Keep learning.
Be the one with the most knowledge and use this to lead your colleagues towards better decisions and thus, better performance.
3. Get to the “why” of situations
Another unfortunate trait within our workplaces is a lack of understanding of why certain things are being carried out. Many people appear to bumble along carrying out tasks that they have little to no understanding of and for which they are unable to define a purpose. This is the natural compliment to mediocre performance because these individuals have little to no context for the work for carrying out and as such are unable to innovate or improve the work.
Make it your business to understand the purpose of the tasks you and your colleagues are carrying out on a daily basis. Ask the relevant questions that will help you to understand “why?”. Once you understand the purpose, articulate it to others and help them to appreciate it.
Understand the purpose of the work and use this understanding to help others see where you’re going and why.
4. Critically appraise your own performance
We’re often scared to reflect on our own performance. Commonly, if people don’t experience any negative consequences from their current level of performance, they assume all to be okay and carry on performing at the same level. This is not conducive to improvement, again it is a recipe for stagnation.
Adopt the habit of regularly appraising your own performance. Consider what you do well and look for opportunities to improve. Be prepared to look honestly at your negative areas and plan out how you might develop them. Do all of this from the perspective of a third party. Imagine yourself as someone else looking in on your performance and go from there. Where you find deficiencies, don’t allow yourself to be disheartened. This will only impact your self-esteem. Consider them as facts, as something impersonal and then you’ll be free to objectively determine how best to improve.
Become interested in your own performance and development and set an example to your colleagues along the way.
Back to Self-Esteem
Now before I finish this blog, I want to touch on self-esteem again. You may have spotted that there are some self esteem implications to becoming a disruptive influence within your team. Raising your head above the parapet and fighting for better performance where everyone else is satisfied with the status quo has its consequences.
In the short term you may experience reduced self-esteem simply as a result of differentiating yourself from the herd. As I said earlier, people derive self esteem by justifying their own performance in relation to that of others. Attempting to do things differently means that you can no longer compare yourself to those around you as easily.
Go with it. Don’t allow short-term discomfort to prevent you from achieving long-term satisfaction.
In the long term your self esteem will go up considerably. As you become more interested in improving your performance and being a more positive influence on others, your self worth and self belief will increase. Over time, you will feel much better about yourself, you will feel more secure and you will be more fulfilled than you are now.
So give it some thought. Why not step away from the consensus of underperformance and become an example to those around you of why we need not settle for mediocrity in our workplaces.
Set the bar high and watch yourself accelerate towards greater and greater achievement – like a bat out of hell.
Managing Director – Franklin-Hackett Ltd.