The Collusion of Mediocrity – background

I first noticed the collusion of mediocrity in a restaurant. A friend’s starter came and was not what they ordered. When the waiter offered to change my friend replied: “No, it’s fine. I’ll have this.” It soon became clear it was not what they really wanted. On another occasion one of our party remarked that the food wasn’t very hot. “I’ll get the waiter” I offered. “No, no need to make a fuss.” was the reply and warm food was eaten. For both of these people, feedback was somehow traumatic. It was then I realised that many people are so traumatised by even the most simple kinds of feedback. Indeed, feedback and complaint are viewed by many as the same thing. Complaining is seen as a negative thing, a “spoiler” in an already negative world. Complaint will result in misery for all, and will almost certainly lead to the chef secretly spitting in your food.

On a different occasion I was in a meeting at a university and a good bit of news emerged that a course that everyone hard worked hard to get approved, had been validated. Someone raised their voice and almost shouted “Yippee!”. They were later told off for “inappropriate behaviour”. We fear the complain, we fear to celebrate. We opt for the safe mid-range in life’s voice. We go for the middle way, not as an act of courageous compromise, but as a flight from the extremes of truthfulness and honesty. The result? By taking the middle way always, we often get the middle result – mediocrity – something less than potential. Sometimes that may be necessary – sometimes the courageous act CAN be the middle path – too often its an escape into a safety that means we settle for less – that excellence becomes impossible to us – too risky, too uncomfortable, too dangerous.

The collusion of mediocrity occurs when we seek to avoid being honest in order to keep things “nice” and “comfortable. We try to avoid awkwardness by maintaining the status quo rather than challenging it. The result: mediocrity. In personal life we collude with friends, family, even ourselves, and this collusion often hides behind words such as “love”, “kindness” and “protection”. In working and community life, it hides behind words such as “trouble-making”, “professionalism” and “realism”. Ironically, colluding is often a flight from realism, and it often allows individuals and groups to under-perform, even on their own terms, let alone the terms of others. When we collude with mediocrity we join in with fear, nurture it, give it credence. When we collude with mediocrity we take part in the renaming of reality as something less or more than it really is – usually, less, much less.

In my fifteen years’ experience as a facilitator and trainer, this collusion has become pervasive in the business world, even in society as a whole. Being honest is seen as “complaining” and complainers are not viewed positively – they are people who make a fuss and spoil the atmosphere! It has become a kind of sickness. In cases where the lack of honesty has become institutionalised, where people fear to give feedback (in the health service for example), people actually die as a result.

When you don’t complain in a restaurant, with the excuse that you don’t want to “spoil or nice evening” or through fear of the restaurant being a restaurant from Hell who will spit in your plate as soon as it is out of your sight, you get mediocrity or even worse, AND you perpetuate that mediocrity for other customers in the future.

Being honest is not the same as complaining. In fact, giving honest feedback isn’t a complaint at all. I believe that a complaint kicks in when the feedback is ignored or not acted upon. Telling a waiter that the meal isn’t hot is NOT a complaint – it is valuable feedback. If the waiter doesn’t return soon with a properly hot meal and perhaps a decent apology, THEN a complaint is required.

Some people don’t collude but too many do. In business this occurs both internally between employees and managers and externally with customers and suppliers. It is often born of fear. “If you are honest around here, you are viewed as a trouble maker” or “Our customers aren’t open to feedback and we don’t want to risk losing the contract”.

When collusions are broken, the results can be damaging. Hearing the truth is not always an easy process. It takes time to get used to it. Honesty may have to be re-asserted as a value in a company that as become a collusion of mediocrity. Managers would have to lead by example and encourage honesty at ALL levels.

Criticism, constructive but genuinely honest, has to become a virtue in the company or organisation. The result: better quality, more effectiveness; a bit like a high performing football team or a breathtaking theatre company, performance is only really achieved when colleagues feel safe enough to be honest and open with other. The benefit of collusion is a sense of superficial safety and niceness, but the cost is far greater: lack of innovation and a malingering mediocrity.

In personal life, not colluding can dangerous, personally and professionally.  The best way to “walk to the talk” of non-collusion is to be honest in both directions – to both name the dark and also celebrate the light. To hug as much as hassle. To learn to read the needs of situations and to develop an intuitive sense and skill for when collusion breaking is going to lead to more benefit than harm. My own belief is that non-collusion always pays off in the long run.


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