At the end of the 20th century there was a subtle realignment of the English language in the workplace. We could no longer, ‘have a gay day’, discuss a ‘walkout’, hire ‘minions’ (long before those adorable little yellow creatures this was a derogatory word) or for the purposes of this blog accept mediocrity as ever a good thing again.
But hold your horses there. Let’s have a look at that definition and compare with everything we know today about productivity, job satisfaction and engagement in the workplace:
Mediocrity : (noun) – ordinariness, as a consequence of being average and not outstanding. Passable.
HR anthropologists suggest Mediocrity was a lesser-known victim of McKinsey’s ‘War for Talent’. The authors, offering us absolutely no scientific proof to underpin their findings left the definition of the elusive ‘talent’ initially undefined. The HR function over the proceeding years left us in no doubt – Talent was tall, played rugby and flew fighter jets, had a handlebar moustache, was effortlessly charming, high cheekbones and never, ever got fat. They were out of reach, pursued by others and smelt permanently of desire. This highly male-centric definition dominated the landscape as an entire generation of female talent was squeezed out by narrow-minded protectionist white, stale males.
Soon Jack Welch stuck another nail in the mediocrity coffin by putting it in the middle of the finest feedback sandwich ever created by the Gods of Free Market Capitalism. Only 10% at the top could be Talent and 10% at the bottom were in the column marked ‘to be binned’ on an annual basis. This Darwinian approach spread from GE to every copycat large employer in the Western World. In the middle of the bell curve, the huddled masses, never referred to as mediocre were instead average performers, solid or dependable and were the rock the organisation needed to tick over. In short, some of the most patronising guff ever communicated by boardrooms populated, of course, by the self-appointed ‘most talented’ at the top of the pyramid.
Everyone in the people ecosystem colluded in the stitch-up – Recruiters of all types would source only for elusive A players and use traditional processes that would focus on universities, degrees, incestuous industry backgrounds and evidence of doing the same role currently as pre-requisites. In short, all the criteria that fails to predict future success or in other words full blown mediocrity.
Recruitment wasn’t alone – L&D developed HiPo programmes focusing on elitism, Reward delivered compensation packages that meant that only Talents could afford to buy a house in central London whilst ‘average Joe’ in a hospital doing a critical public service could only be housed at the back of a rented shoe box in the middle of zone 5.
Recently whilst we’ve shifted to allegedly more people-centric organisations, mediocrity has remained banned from the corporate lexicon despite all the evidence of its prevailing place in the current transitional world of work. Recruitment marketers, having succumbed to the colonization of the global workplace by the USA, remain hooked on finding rock stars for awesome organisations or turning the corporate IT geek into a ninja.
Which brings me back round to my growing belief that if we are being honest then mediocrity is a fair summary of where the vast majority of our organisations stand and maybe that’s alright in opposition to the prevailing narrative. In a world where external environmental factors have accelerated the pace of change, we are just immature organisations trying to push upwards to survive. Our HR ecosystem is just a byproduct of that.
So this Friday 1st April, people will celebrate ‘passable’ cultures, where good folk are just trying their best to do what’s right against the odds. They’ll celebrate how mediocrity continues to acquire and retain paying customers, grow revenue and sustain way beyond what it should through hard endeavour. Mediocre people will continue to be hired via passable recruitment processes, elite leadership programmes will continue to flatter to deceive and in the near term many organisations will remain vastly disengaged, unproductive with mediocre people trying to frequently look talented to external recruiters searching for it in oh-so mediocre ways.
Until next time. Enjoy mediocrity day and embrace passable as the new black.