Mediocre Attitudes and the Downfall of Greatness

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It all started innocently enough as I was looking for casters. I had this idea for a piece of exercise equipment and decided to build a prototype but I needed casters - those swivel wheels that go under office chairs, carts, etc.

I had to ask three sales clerks where to find them in the big box hardware store before the third clerk actually looked in the computer to figure out where they stocked them. Reluctantly, I purchased four casters from them. It turns out that it wasn't just the service that was lousy. The casters were too noisy, not smooth enough and they marked the floor.

Next day was a visit to Casterland - a store that deals only in casters. They had exactly what I was looking for. I brought them home, installed them with great success. I should have gone to the specialists in the first place.

The service was better and the product was top notch. The shopping experience was outstanding. Lesson learned. Oh, and the casters weren't more expensive. They were less expensive than the big box hardware store.

Then that night, while watching an episode of Hell's Kitchen on television, it struck me that out of all of the burned scallops, raw lamb, overcooked steaks, forgotten garnish, raw halibut, contestants sweating in the food and a general willingness to attempt to sneak substandard food past Chef Gordon Ramsay that it dawned on me: one of these very mediocre finalists is going to be head chef at Araxi in Whistler, BC. Are you kidding me? (Araxi should be concerned about this kind of marketing on their behalf.)

You don't even have to be good. You just have to be lucky enough to qualify for the show in the first place. No one on the show seems outstanding in any sort of way. All of them seem to buckle under pressure. All of them have their good nights and their bad nights.

The only thing that seems to be consistent is their collective inconsistency. And yet, despite their overwhelming mediocrity, one of them is going to win the big prize. All that's required is to be best of mediocre. There is no contestant who is a clear front runner. They are all equally mediocre.

While reading a blog post from Seth Godin recently, he made mention of a Washington Post columnist recently laid off because his blog posts didn't get enough web traffic. In the old days, when people read newspapers, there was no way to tell which columns readers were reading. But in today's digital age, a simple hit counter tells the tale.

In today's digital age, you can't skate by by just being mediocre. Are newspapers about change? You bet they are. Reporters and columnists are going to have to start writing what we, the customer, want to read - giving us, the customer, what we want instead of just spouting their opinions and not being concerned whether or not we are reading it.

A recent trip to Best Buy illustrates how mediocre service has become. I was looking for a simple desktop microphone for a computer that plugs in through a USB terminal. I asked one of the associates. His reply, "I don't think we sell those."

I asked him if there was someone he could ask to which he turned and did exactly that. He returned several moments later claiming, "No we don't sell those."

His department supervisor happened to be walking past at that moment and I turned to her and asked if she could point me in the direction of desktop microphones that plug-in through a USB terminal. She reached past me down to the bottom shelf and pulled up the very microphone I had been looking for.

I turned to the first sales associate and simply said, "I guess you do sell these."

His reply, "well I asked someone and they said we didn't."

This would have been a great opportunity for the sales associate to simply make the customer happy. All he had to do was smile, apologize for his error and move on. But he didn't. It was more important for him to be right than it was for the customer to be happy. That is so incredibly mediocre. Any organization is capable of doing that and sadly, most do. Best Buy finished below mediocre in that instance.

Then, this morning on the LinkedIn bulletin board came this answer to a question: "There is what is called the 20-80-20 rule of management. 20% of people will hate you no matter what. 80% will have no opinion either way. 20% will love you no matter what."

Is it just me or can you do the math as well? It adds up to 120% doesn't it? The question was answered in this way by a self-professed MBA. He used the letters right after his name in his profile. He seemed proud of his MBA. Sure, we can cut the guy a little slack for making an honest mistake but here's the problem: he didn't check his work before he submitted it.

That's a mediocre effort. How many other times does he submit his work without checking it? Putting that answer out in front of millions of people without checking his work made him look sloppy - sloppy with an MBA. That's mediocre.

Had someone without an MBA made the same mistake we would have simply passed it off as though they had no idea what they were talking about. But this guy was an MBA. He should know what he's talking about. He should have checked his work. But he didn't because he gave a very mediocre effort. If you're going to live by the title you had better be meticulous. People are watching. But even with an MBA, "good enough" seems to be good enough.

And that's the problem in corporate North America today. Mediocrity is rampant. "Good enough" has become good enough. But there is good news: to be outstanding, all that is required is to be one step above mediocre. Anyone can win in that market. That should be encouraging news to any organization looking to be the best in their field.

But you have to want to be the best in your field in order to be one step better than mediocre. Sadly, most don't. And so they wallow in mediocrity just like everyone else. They accept mediocre performance from their people.

They accept mediocre ideas. They accept mediocre management. They accept wallowing somewhere in the middle of the pack as okay. They train their people to be simply competent -- not outstanding -- just competent - and more often than not miss that mark too.

If your people are good but not great, if your management is good but not great, if your sales numbers are good but not great, if your attrition numbers are good but not great, if your safety numbers are good but not great, if your innovations are good but not great, if your service is good but not great, if your results are good but not great then you have a corporate culture of "good enough." Don't deny it. It's right there for everyone else to see. Your results prove it.

To go from mediocre to greatness requires the adoption of seven attitudes:

* the Attitude of Money, Security and Safety,
* the Attitude of Resilience,
* the Attitude of Connectedness,
* the Attitude of Gratitude,
* the Attitude of Service,
* the Attitude of Leadership,
* the Instigational® Attitude.

The difference between greatness and mediocrity is one step. Sadly, you probably won't make that step because where you are seems to be good enough.

Kevin Burns - Corporate Attitude Expert is the author of eight books including his forthcoming, "Your Attitude Sucks - Fixing What's Wrong With Corporate America." He is an outstanding keynote speaker and worldwide columnist. He is opinionated, blunt, direct, funny, thought-provoking and usually - right!

More info on Kevin at

Read Kevin's Blog at


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