The Failure of “Good-Enough” Cultures

Billions of dollars are wasted each year by companies who compromise on standards. Many leaders endanger themselves and their organizations by permitting a “good-enough culture.” This danger of mediocrity fortunately has a remedy.

“Only the mediocre are always at their best.” ~ Jean Giraudoux, French essayist

The good-enough culture plagues an organization in every aspect of its operation, all the way down to the most basic. Some of the more prominent effects are:

  • Lack of productivity
  • Staff turnover
  • Defective products
  • Warranty costs
  • Safety costs
  • Inefficiency and waste
  • Dissatisfied customers
  • Lost sales
  • Layoffs
  • Shrinking profits
  • Poor reputation

Leaders experience many more unseen problems buried down under the details of every department. The issues feed on themselves if not corrected.
Growing the Good-Enough Culture
The good-enough culture flows down from the top of the organization. It takes root when leaders believe that a good-enough approach is acceptable.
Typically, leaders who have the impression that life for them is rewarding enough don’t see the need to work to make things better for everyone else. Leaders with a self-focused mindset have one or more of the following issues:

  • Apathy: There is no real concern for what the others in the organization endure.
  • Laziness: There is no felt need to give more than an adequate effort. Adequate often seems heroic to the lazy mind.
  • Disengagement: There is not enough involvement with staff or specific operations to know that troubles exist. Worse yet, the leader intentionally avoids knowledge of problems.
  • Greed: There is less monetary reward for the upper echelon if more resources are spent on addressing system shortcomings. This is the age-old deception of not believing a sacrifice today pays rewards tomorrow.
  • Fear of failure: There is too much risk seen in trying something that could make things worse. This fear emanates from a lack of wisdom or confidence.
  • Pride: There is a need to preserve image by avoiding the acknowledgment of a problem.
  • Ignorance: There is no pressing desire to know how the operation works, to grasp how it could be better.
  • Resentment: There is a dislike of bad news and the people who bring it. And of course, nothing can be improved if it’s not discussed.

Leaders who don’t understand the power of excellence don’t care enough about pursuing it. This lack of caring is what author Subir Chowdhury claims is the main cause of a good-enough culture, in his book, The Difference: When Good Enough Isn’t Enough (Penguin Random House, 2017).
When leaders don’t care enough about being the best they can be, why would staff? Each layer in the organization takes its cue from the one above, and all of them ultimately from the top. Uncaring leaders set a strong example that caring is not needed by anyone. The result is mediocrity at best, total failure at worst. Leaders who are excellence-minded see both of these as failure.
Organizations fail, but not always because they’ve crashed to the bottom. Leaders often cause slow failure simply by allowing mediocrity to set in. When things are “good enough,” people are lulled into complacency and a false security. They are unprepared to respond effectively when the bleeding begins, and gradual decline ensues.
Symptoms of “Good-Enough”
Organizations and leaders who don’t care much about excellence will signal this throughout the system. Some signals are subtle, some are clear. Here are some examples:

  • Leaders often ignore the elephant on the conference room table. Certain bad topics are not discussed. Waves aren’t made. Upsetting bosses with bad news or concerns is avoided at all costs. When staff leave a meeting knowing an underlying issue is deliberately left unaddressed, this is a sign that the status quo is too important to disrupt. Good enough is good enough.
  • When red tape bogs down a process and is discussed with no effort to get to root causes, this is a trouble sign. In these instances, leaders simply want the bottleneck to go away by any means necessary, and there’s no real concern for preventions or improvements. They permit an exception to the rules and everyone goes back about their business because good enough is good enough.
  • People start blaming one another during stressful situations rather than trying to reach understanding. Gaining clarity and collaboration takes work, sometimes a lot of it. Leaders don’t regard teamwork worth giving of their time and effort, so they allow their people to endure disunity because good enough is good enough.
  • Leaders are more upset at delivery numbers than product quality when production nonconformance arises. Standards are conceded to get the product out the door, or leaders approve a band-aid for the problem, hoping it’s just a limited issue. The concessions are easier than diving into the causes and effective solutions, because good enough is good enough.
  • Employees are skeptical of feedback forms, company surveys or information meetings because their voices are rarely valued, heard or acted upon. Suggestions go unanswered, survey results are not shared and organizational information has no real substance. Any improvements are minor, not requiring a significant investment. Leaders don’t emphasize positive change because good enough is good enough.
  • Leaders see staff turnover in a specific department, and exit interviews indicate a managerial problem. But they see it more difficult to replace a manager―with a higher salary requirement and a more complex recruitment process―than to continue finding new employees with fairly common skills. Leaders choose to make due, overlooking the manager’s weaknesses because good enough is good enough.

When leaders reveal these and other symptoms it is a general indication that they don’t really care enough about excellence to truly implement it, and probably don’t understand how to.
Overcoming the Good-Enough Culture
Author Chowdhury suggests four basic principles leaders can apply to overcome the good-enough syndrome.

  • Truthfulness / Directness: Leaders who care about truth must instill a culture of transparency and honesty. They are advised to deal with trials directly and openly, and to reduce fear by welcoming feedback. This gives responsibility to staff to bring issues to the table and tackle them, with the incentive to solve them. Leaders who can accept bad news, and respond with fairness and understanding, establish higher levels of emotional safety, accountability, and excellence.
    People learn to care about the day-to-day issues, and have a greater sense of empowerment to make things work better. Small successes lead to more, and succeeding becomes attractive. A leader who cares about making things right for everyone will create a following of people who want to do the same. Being truthful and direct builds trust. And trust breeds higher standards. Good enough is no longer good enough.
  • Consideration for Others: Leaders who care about their people are attentive to them. They show them they’re valued by engaging them, listening to them, and understanding them. Their communications skills demonstrate an empathetic mindset, where the leader is concerned about what their people are going through, and how things can be improved for them. This requires humility and genuineness. Such leaders care enough to be helpful and unselfish.
    People respond by returning a leader’s consideration with consideration of their own. They know they’re affirmed and appreciated, and this causes them to care about what the leader cares about, as well as each of their contributions. The staff becomes thankful and returns the leader’s thoughtfulness with their best efforts. Quality becomes a desired trait of their work, because good enough is no longer acceptable.
  • Taking Responsibility: Leaders who care about excellence demonstrate responsibility and instill the same in their people. They accept critical feedback but not without viable proposals for solutions. They don’t accept a mentality of “it’s not my job.” Everyone participates and is expected to follow through on their assignments. Great leaders prompt everyone to add value and make positive changes.
    This encourages engagement, positive outlooks, and a drive for the best ideas. These leaders forge the habit of analyzing strategies and their potential outcomes. An overall aim to enhance things for everyone is established.
    The staff responds by getting involved, taking action, and being answerable for what they do. Everyone strives for improvement, and they raise their expectations. People find it exhilarating to be responsible for their portion of the overall success. They feel a sense of unity, and are encouraged to ask for help when needed. Staff go the extra mile because they care, and because good enough is not an option.
  • Determination: Leaders who care lead by example. They show their people that success requires resolve, and nothing worth achieving comes easily. Leaders who persevere inspire the passion in their people to do the same. It shows the staff that the leader is serious about making commitments and staying the course. That demonstrates the importance of decisions and the worth of the goal. They support long-term improvements and reject quick fixes. Leaders who don’t give up when things get tough make a lasting impression on their people. That impression grows when they understand the struggles their people have, and help them with the needed resources.
    Workers respond to this with a determination generated from within. They take ownership as they are empowered to act and resolve. People adopt a willingness to change and improve, individually and collectively. They reject short cuts. This drives a can-do culture. They care about contributing to lasting value because they learn that good enough never provides that value.

Caring about excellence is everything. A truthful leader molds a team that improves communication, timeliness and a thorough review of all difficult issues, large and small. A leader who’s considerate of others demonstrates the importance of relationships to success. Leaders who commit to such responsibility raise the level of accountability within their staff. Employees who are held to account by their manager also hold each other to account. Determined leaders foster a group spirit that overcomes challenges that once made people surrender.
Leaders can transform their organizations and reach potential never imagined if they put their immediate needs aside and care for their people and the outcomes of their endeavors. Their caring becomes contagious. Everyone’s felt needs will be met more effectively when a caring culture is in place.

Brain-Friendly Steps to Make Change Stick

When’s the last time you promised yourself to make some changes, either break or make a new habit? And how long did your changes last?
Changing habits can be one of the hardest things to do. Once we decide to lose weight, quit smoking, get fit, or do anything differently, it takes a lot of effort and persistence before we can claim success. Anyone who tells you it only takes 30 days to acquire a new habit doesn’t know human nature.
Most people who’ve been successful at making major lifestyle changes report that it rarely comes as steadily upward progress. Instead, it’s often two steps forward and one back, with intermittent relapses, surges of resolve, and a lot of learning along the way.
One has only to look at the obesity problem in the US and other affluent countries to see how hard it is to make behavioral changes that stick. Despite growing evidence that being overweight contributes to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature aging, people struggle to lose weight, start exercising, and eat healthy. The obesity rates aren’t getting better, they’re getting worse.
And yet we know more about how to make or break habits than ever before. Behavioral scientists have conducted extensive research into how people make lasting changes. Why aren’t more people successful?
Knowing Isn’t Enough
“If you want to make a change you need to know why you’re making the change―but for that change to really last you need more than knowledge. When it comes to change, our minds don’t work rationally.” ~ The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, Grand Central Publishing, 2017
We humans have far less personal control than we like to think we have. We largely go about our days operating out of automatic patterns and impulses. When we decide to change our routines, some of us are more accomplished than others. Here is what successful change experts suggest we do.
First, identify a change you’d like to make. Identify one area you’d like to improve, such as health. Before you commit, ask yourself three questions.

  • How ready to change are you? On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate your readiness to actually make this change? (A ranking of 1 would mean you’re not at all ready; a 10 means you’re extremely ready.) If you rate your readiness at a 6 or below, go to the second question to explore what truly motivates you. Many of us are ambivalent, even though we admit we “should change.” Pick a change for which you are truly ready to commit.
  • What about this change is meaningful to you? Ask yourself what things are most important to you. Try to tie your goals with your values and deepest priorities in life. The more your goal is connected to your values and priorities, the more likely you are to stick with the change. Choosing goals related to relationships, enjoyment, and meaning in life are simply more important to people than wealth, fame, or how others perceive us.
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident are you that you can make this change? If you aren’t sure you can attain your goal, make it smaller and easier to achieve. Anything you rate as a 6 or lower means you need to adjust your sights. You need goals that are challenging but realistically attainable based on previous results. Self-efficacy is one of the biggest predictors of future behavior. Break down goals into steps that will boost your confidence.

Brain-Friendly Tips
The brain is equipped for automaticity and economizing efforts. The way to make that work in your favor is to include brain-friendly action steps.

  • Make small changes: If your goal is too hard, break it down into easy-to-do steps. Instead of 45 minutes of exercise a day, set out to do 10 minutes a day or one hour a week. You will feel successful and energized to make the next small change.
  • Staple it: Tack your change to something else you do regularly. If you log on to your computer each day, set a goal of writing for 20 minutes before opening email. Hitching a behavior to an already embedded one helps you stick to your plan.
  • Mornings are best: Whatever change you decide to make, do it before the day gets in the way. Once you let a busy schedule take over your brain, other priorities will interfere. Make your change a priority first thing.
  • Don’t decide, just do: Schedule your behavior and don’t waver. Making decisions will deplete mental energy and resolve. Just do it. Or, just start to do it. Once you start, you may decide to complete the action.
  • Celebrate it: Give yourself credit for whatever you accomplish. We are often judgmental of less-than-perfect efforts. If you aren’t giving yourself positive reinforcement and mental pats-on-the-back, you will lose enthusiasm.

It’s not rocket science; making changes stick isn’t complicated. Make sure you set meaningful goals, and create a pathway to success. Expect obstacles and distractions. Those who succeed are those who get support from others, are willing to delay gratification, and persist.

The Dangers of Ego in Leadership

“Ego is the invisible line item on every company’s profit and loss statement.”
—David Marcum and Steven Smith in egonomics: What Makes Ego Our Greatest Asset (or Most Expensive Liability), Fireside, 2007

Nothing can be more debilitating in an organization than a leader with an ego. If you work for a leader driven by ego, your ability to cope can be pushed to the limit. In organizations, leaders with out-of-control egos are responsible for huge losses in productivity and profits.

In today’s culture that promotes self-worth and self-focus, egotism appears to be a growing trend that often gets rewarded. However, outsized egos are behind the struggle organizations have in keeping good people, doing the right thing, earning the trust of customers, and enjoying long-term prosperity.

Egotism is easy to spot, but its effects are hard to understand, and solutions are challenging. A definition of an egotist is someone focused on themselves with little regard for others. Egotists have an unhealthy belief in their own importance.

Author Ryan Holiday, in his book, Ego Is The Enemy (Penguin, 2016), defines ego as a sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.  Ego is what drives many leaders to excel in their fields, but it leaves them (and their organizations) vulnerable to failure. In a world of ambition with high rewards for success, big egos seem to come with the territory. But for effective leaders who want to build sustainable success, ego is the inner enemy.

The Inner Struggles of Leaders with Big Egos

For any leader, the risks of big ego are magnified. An inflated perception of oneself distorts reality, both inwardly and outwardly.

  • Egotists regard themselves as superior, set apart from everyone else.
  • They are entitled and important simply because they want to be.
  • They know everything, or at least don’t believe they can be taught anything of significance in their immediate world.
  • With a rear-view-mirror perspective, they rely on past accomplishments, convinced these are enough to carry them wherever they want to go.

Because of the need to protect their sense of superiority, egotists are disconnected from the world, often naïve about its workings. In their minds, everything is simplified to conform to their personal perceptions. They are blind to “uncooperative” agents, or refuse to deal with them. They refashion the truth to better support their ego. This causes the egotist to carve out a false life to be lived out in a false world. The resulting blind spots lead to a distorted worldview and behaviors that aren’t appropriate or effective.

Since it can’t be their fault when things don’t go their way, egotists resent the people or systems they feel have let them down. They may adopt a persecution mentality, playing the victim of “unfair” treatment. Caught up with distorted thoughts and imagery, they ratchet up the superiority even more, to regain position.

Unintentionally, the egotist places a barrier between themselves and the world. Their self-serving frame of mind always wants more. Even with no scores to settle, they have a need to win all the time, at the expense of others.

Within this self-constructed worldview, they distinguish themselves (the deserved winner) from the losers. The egotist believes they are the center of everyone’s thoughts and critique. Always envied, always judged, the egotist responds to this self-appointed status with various behaviors of defensiveness, rashness, or inconsideration.

The Outer Symptoms of Egotism

Leaders with big egos not only affect the people they work with, but the productivity of the whole organization suffers. Because of the egotist’s disinterest in other viewpoints, they cannot work constructively with those who disagree. They can’t accept or learn from feedback, and it doesn’t take long for feedback to be stifled altogether. A distorted take on reality leads to the egotist’s overconfidence in tackling major challenges.

The effects of leaders with big egos cause great pain throughout the organization. The egotistical leader:

  • Will only hear what they want to hear, creating blindness to truth. They surround themselves with “yes-men” who outwardly resonate with the leader. The real issues aren’t evaluated and thus strategies are misguided.
  • Is indecisive, because they believe that action is not required as threats are downplayed or dismissed.
  • Underestimates challenges due to lack of understanding. The problems grow worse and merge into higher categories of trouble.
  • Takes on daunting tasks without preparation or the ability to solve them, because they see them as less threatening than they really are.
  • Does not relate to the needs of the other people, and doesn’t bother to motivate, teach, or lead them. They don’t prioritize the people who do the work and engage with customers.
  • Acts persecuted or rejected when people disagree or leave the organization.
  • Does not reflect on personal shortcomings because it would interfere with their need to feel superior. Their blind spots go unaddressed, and eventually people stop bringing them up.
  • Does not see available opportunities for the organization because of an internal focus on their own needs. 

It’s not difficult to grasp that these symptoms of leadership ego eventually lead to overriding problems that can be difficult to reverse. Teamwork and loyalty are compromised. Creativity, learning, and growth are significantly limited. Opportunities and expectations are missed. Customer retention is jeopardized. Employee turnover rises and the prospects for success fall.
 
Taking Ground Back from Egotism

Egotism in leadership can be countered. But it takes a deliberate effort on the part of leaders to refocus and see things from a wider view. Trained coaches can be an excellent resource to guide leaders to a helpful perspective. In some cases, a leader can only make progress on becoming less egotistical through working with an experienced professional.

An effective leader requires a life of balance. Some ego tendencies are beneficial. Boldness and confidence are certainly assets in forging direction and inspiring followers. But these tendencies must be kept in check and proportioned with other important leadership attributes.

To minimize the unhealthy effects of ego, a leader must find a conscious balance between:

  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Ambition and caution
  • Confidence and doubt
  • Foresight and hindsight
  • Boldness and accountability
  • Inspiration and being grounded
  • Personal needs and the needs of others

A leader needs to optimize the art of self-management, where they can suppress and channel ego when needed. This takes an awareness of the danger signs. It takes an accurate self-assessment, where they can see themselves from a distance. Detaching from false assumptions and their influences is key in this, as is recognizing and resisting the temptations. It always feels good to satisfy the inner cravings of self-importance, but danger is never far away.

An important aspect of correcting egotistical tendencies is learning about emotional intelligence. Improving EQ requires a leader to properly substitute humility for ego. This is a vital skill in subduing the effects of ego. It is a difficult transition for a leader to make, but with the proper support and training, it can be done.

A key practice is to recognize the viewpoints of others. No one can see themselves objectively enough to override all their blind spots. Asking for feedback and getting help is an important weapon a leader can use to defeat egotist tendencies.

Principles That Subdue Egotism

Author Holiday makes the case for several guiding principles leaders can use in overcoming their natural self-importance attitudes. Every leader who’s caught in the egotist condition will need help trusting and applying these principles.

  • The egotistical leader is good at talking big. But big talk is a front that the egotist uses to sidestep true accomplishment. Nothing brings a lofty talker down to earth quite like a serious and thoughtful plan to meet a complex goal. It takes a sober mind and a humble assessment of capabilities to pull off a victory. It’s victories, not talk, that make a leader successful. 
  • A leader with an ego believes that their mission is to win and succeed over others. But they need to realize the only meaningful mission in life is to pursue a purpose larger than themselves. The choice is to live by a calling rather than by what can be acquired. This takes another choice: to be selfless over selfish. A record of accomplishments is what leaders are admired for, not who they think they are. History bears this out repeatedly.
  • Egotistical leaders can’t learn anything if they think they already know everything. A key to successful leadership is to agree that no one knows everything they need to know to be the best they can be. Continuous learning is the only way to succeed. The smartest leaders of all time were smart enough to know there were things they still needed to learn. The best leaders acknowledge that there are always leaders who are better. They know how to swallow pride, get feedback, admit shortcomings, and learn. Then they get busy.
  • History doesn’t deceive. Egotistical leaders benefit by appreciating the historic truth that greatness starts with humble beginnings. This requires that they learn and grow without drawing attention to themselves. True success comes through serving others and providing a value people seek. This, not any self-proclaimed worth, builds one’s reputation and demand. Helping oneself is best attained by helping others. This requires a humble heart and the setting aside of ego.

Ego is a liar that distorts reality. The leader who can ignore the tempting thoughts and images that have been distorting their perspectives to make them feel important will have the best chance of shaking their egotistical ways. They need a clearer, more honest picture of what’s happening around them. That’s best done through other points of view.

Leaders will see their people rally behind them if they can adopt these principles, reframe their mindsets and habits, and earn the trust needed to effectively prosper their people and their organizations.