Resist Learned Mediocrity

During a team meeting last week, one of my colleagues used the term “learned mediocrity”. I thought about what this expression means within the context of an organization and for individuals.  Businesses and people don’t set out with an objective to be mediocre. In fact, I’ve read studies that show people will rate their own performance higher than outside observers Here’s one example reported from the Wall Street Journal. People and organizations don’t see themselves as mediocre. Have you noticed how in press releases companies refer to themselves as “a leading provider of ….”. Can everyone be a leading provider? Have you read articles about how people artificially create content on their resumes? By definition, most people or organizations must be “average”.

So, what is learned mediocrity? It’s the process of becoming mediocre (or average) through the course of following rules, guidelines, or structured work flows. As the process is repeated it becomes learned. Joseph Heller had slightly different take. He wrote “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them”. Perhaps men are born mediocre, but there opportunities in everyone’s life to become above average in some activity or event.

Here are some ways that people learn mediocre behaviors:

  • Approval processes and procedures that require conformity of behavior. When processes and procedures force everyone to think in the same way then they lose creativity or the ability to act dynamically.
  • Repeating behavior patterns. It’s the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” syndrome.  In our lives, we develop habits from what works for us. Since we are creatures of habit, we want to avoid making changes. This stifles innovative thinking which in turn contributes to learned mediocrity.
  • Lack of empowerment to complete work. Have you ever talked to a customer service agent or supervisor that told you they were not authorized to make your situation right to complete a sale? The customer service workers want to help the customer and make things right. But after repeating scenarios of denying customers and not having the ability to correct a bad situation due to policy, they agent becomes worn down and stops caring. This makes them average or mediocre.
  • Not being allowed to challenge ideas. Top heavy organizations that force policy, strategy, projects down without discussion create a work force that stops thinking about incremental improvements and new ideas. They are not encouraged to think or improve. They become mediocre.
  • Teaching to the lowest common denominator. Much of our education system is built-on the principal of teaching to the lowest level student. Students are rewarded for conforming to same set of rules and not by being creative.

In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, Jim Collins discusses the concept of having entrepreneurial leaders that are given the freedom to create the best path to achieving their objectives. But these leaders must commit to the organizational system and be held accountable to their objectives. Jim’s point is that leaders who are allowed to create and get away from the conformity to process and procedures are the one’s that succeed in becoming great (instead of just good).

Is the answer to learned mediocrity that everyone should have an entrepreneurial drive? No, that’s not realistic. However, a component of entrepreneurial thinking is creativity and creativity is a trait more commonly held among people. Thinking and acting creatively helps people to get out of routines, it helps to break patterns, it helps to create opportunities to be great. Creative thinking is what allows a person to move beyond their base learning and towards incremental improvements or innovative creations. I think the challenge for organizations and individuals is to find ways to encourage creative thinking in their cultures and daily routines. It means stepping away from processes, policies, or individual routines that have become commonplace and accepted.