SETTING THE BAR
John couldn’t figure it out. His industrial supply business was struggling, and for the life of him he didn’t understand why. He found himself working harder and harder to try to succeed; recently his nights and weekends had blurred into a regular part of his work week. He had begun to feel depressed and despondent.
His employees seemed to be perpetually surly and uncooperative. Even though they all worked overtime on a regular basis, he was puzzled about why he had such difficulty getting volunteers when he offered them the chance to make even more money by working more hours. Didn’t they appreciate the opportunity he was providing for them and their families?
Even more disappointing to him was that he couldn’t seem to keep good employees. It seemed to be getting harder and harder to attract good applicants and the ones that he did hire never seemed to stay long. Even those that seemed the best almost always turned out to be lazy. To top it all off, one of his most productive and loyal supervisors had begun to have emotional problems and had to take time off to get intensive counseling. John was at his wits’ end. What did he need to change?
Could it be the standard of performance John was expecting? My perspective is that there are 3 basic standards of performance, or places to set the bar, and they have the same predictable effects both personally and in your organization:
Mediocrity. -Feelings: Things are okay but not great. There’s not much excitement or energy, and you have the vague sense that you’re missing something important. -Motivation: Un-motivating. It’s so easy to clear the bar, where’s the challenge and excitement? -Future view: When you look to the future, you anticipate more of the same ho-hum.
Excellence -Feelings: Things are exciting and fun! You feel completely alive, and you know you’re part of something special. -Motivation: Motivating. It’s exciting to see how high you can set the bar and still clear it! -Future view: When you look to the future, you can’t wait for the next exciting and innovative development.
Perfection/Failure -Feelings: These two are synonymous, and you always feel like you’ve failed. Things are depressing and you feel tired and drained. Having fun and enjoying life seem like a distant memory. -Motivation: De-motivating. Perfection is unattainable in real life. Why even try when you know you will never clear the bar? -Future view: When you look to the future, you anticipate more drudgery and disappointment.
John’s perfectionistic expectations of himself had resulted in trouble in his marriage, so he worked weekends to avoid dealing with the bad feelings he had at home. His harsh and demanding expectations of his employees left them overworked, tired, and uncooperative. The good ones soon figured out that they were in a no-win situation; there was no pleasing him. They soon left to find a happier place to work, the word got out, and before long John had a hard time attracting good applicants at all.
John trapped himself in a vicious cycle of perfectionism and failure in his personal and professional life. His cycle looks like this:
Perfectionism (unrealistic/harsh expectations) causes
Feeling angry/afraid (fight or flight) which causes
Trying too hard (“pressing” in comedy) which causes
Emotional exhaustion which leads to
Where have you set the bar for yourself and for your team?
Technique #1: Don’t settle for ho-hum mediocrity. You and your team deserve better—aim higher.
Technique #2: Avoid perfectionism; it’s just another name for failure. A wise person once said that life is about success, not perfection.
Technique #3: Embrace excellence. You’ll know it when you see it and feel it. If you don’t, then get help recalibrating your expectations and developing your skills.