Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around topics relevant to our success and professional growth. Use them in good health and great performance!

Good competition raises the level of performance for all involved.

Whether in athletic endeavors or business, a skilled, aggressive competitor forces us to raise the quality of our own game. Strenuous competition with aggressive, skilled performers tests us physically and mentally and helps us find that extra gear needed to perform at our best.

Annoyingly, the opposite also seems to hold true. When the level of competition is low, we typically back off of our own best game.

In business, lack of aggressive competition or the lack of highly skilled performers results in a fat, dumb and happy cadence in the workplace. We lose our edge and we settle into a gear that minimizes stress and conserves fuel. Hunger disappears. The drive to innovate or to pursue excellence abates. Effectively, we play down to the level of the competition.

Great performers love to be around other great performers…whether on the same team or on opposing sides. Just the presence of highly skilled performers is enough to help us raise our performance expectations and levels. When confronted with the opposite, it’s awkward…less interesting and less motivating for them.

I see the negative form of this situation play out in the workplace in a number of different ways.

Good people with fresh ideas and new ways of approaching old problems find themselves swimming in a sea of toxic politics or suppressed by a crowd of collegial passive-aggressive types. Eventually, they grow tired of swimming against the tide and jump out in search of fresh challenges.

The brilliant individual contributor is hired to help lead the firm in a new direction and after the welcome messages fade, she finds herself in some form of alternate reality where heads nod in the right direction and people focus their energy in another. Some recognize this situation early in their tenure, and when solid efforts at coalition building yield little in the way of support, they leave…with most people failing to recognize the future of the business walking out the door.

The worst of all of these situations is a team of hard-working, capable people who are hungry to promote change but held back by poor leadership. In my experience, many of these people refuse to give in to the reality that the big changes they believe in and need to help the firm level-up are not forthcoming. They continue to raise the issues to little or no response and meanwhile, they execute their day jobs in good fashion, settling for any morsels of improvement they can drive. And slowly, over time, their expectations and their cry for “new” or “improved” reduces to an occasional whisper and they begin to accept the current state. This is when they’ve let the other players reduce the level of their game.

The gravitational pull of the status quo is strong. Moving from mediocrity towards excellence takes remarkable energy and great leadership. In the absence of great leadership, the acceptance of mediocrity across the culture wins.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

No business can thrive when key individuals or teams are playing down to a level that resembles mediocrity. No one can survive and thrive in their career by playing down a level. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Either refuse to give up…find a way forward…or find a better team to play on.

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