Why Do We Tolerate Mediocre Work?
June 3, 2022

Why Do We Tolerate Mediocre Work?

by Brian de Haaff

What does personal and team failure have to do with termites? The link becomes apparent when you learn about termites of the sea. I am talking about shipworms, the saltwater clams that slowly damage wooden piers and wharves. These mollusks drill holes into wood, causing harm that often goes unnoticed until entire structures are destroyed. I believe the same thing can happen when bad work is allowed to exist and then spread at organizations. Quality erodes and company performance suffers.

The unfortunate reality is that bad work infects people and groups beyond its source. That is why it must be consistently rejected.

Let's start with a central question. What is excellent work? I define it as effort that results in achievement and meaningful outcomes. And I would add that it is done with integrity. Whatever you are concentrating on, it has the potential to provide real value to customers, colleagues, and the company you work for. You owe it to yourself and the people around you to continually deliver your best effort.

Mediocre work comes in many flavors. Not responding promptly to a teammate. Wasting time on tasks that are not really impactful. Making quick decisions out of desperation. The list goes on — it may look a little different to different people. What I mean by mediocre in this context is really careless or inconsiderate — things that are not truly damaging on their own but can pile up. The trouble happens if deficiency becomes the norm. At a minimum, one person's sloppy work or inertia burdens those who have to continually correct for it. Over time, when mediocrity is accepted organizations wither.

The real reason that mediocrity becomes normalized is that people become apathetic — and apathy is much worse than failure.

The good news is that we can all recognize and reject lousy work. Asking questions, listening closely, and clarifying why the team is focusing (or not focusing) on something particular are all good ways to approach conversations about quality of work, collaboration, and outcomes. Here are some other skills to practice:

Be accountable

The best place to start pointing fingers is at yourself. Reflect on your own effort and quality and establish goals in the areas you know you want to improve. Make a plan for what you will achieve and share it with a friend or trusted colleague if you need an accountability boost. Then ask for feedback as you move forward and encourage people not to sugar-coat it.

See clearly

More time does not necessarily correlate to higher quality. Instead of pouring additional hours or resources into a project, pause to assess the value of what you and your teammates are actually producing. If you are consistently taking shortcuts, glossing over data, or ignoring information that contradicts your approach, be wary — these are signs that your work may be more lousy than inspired.

Revisit assumptions

Visualize your "why." It is vital that you and your teammates understand what you are working towards, why it matters, and how your efforts make a difference. Clarify who is responsible for key tasks and check in to keep work and communication flowing. Have the courage to speak up if you notice inconsistencies between intentions and follow-through. A gentle reminder can be enough to ignite a sense of teamwork and re-engagement.

Understand the cause

Grasping the source of bad work is key to transforming it. Sometimes mediocre results reflect misunderstandings. Other times there might be a lack of skills or a misalignment in priorities. These can be worked through much easier than apathy. No matter where the breakdown occurs, you need to dig to its cause before you can solve it.

Connect deliberately

Find colleagues who care deeply about their work and bring out the best in others. Get to know them and see if there is an opportunity to work on a project alongside them. When you surround yourself with teammates who are great at what they do and willing to help others, you will naturally feel more connected and look for ways to give back in kind.

Engage anew

Doing the same thing over and over by rote can be deeply unfulfilling. If your problem is stagnancy, seek renewal. Volunteer to take on new responsibilities, help a teammate who needs support, or revisit an idea you had previously shelved. You can also challenge yourself to reframe your work. Sometimes approaching a familiar problem in a different way can reinvigorate you — returning you to what you love about your role.

Celebrate greatness

Outstanding work deserves recognition. When you notice excellence in others, highlight it as a model of what is possible. Honoring individual and collective wins is motivating — it brings you together. And recognize that different types of contributions help you arrive at your peak. Working as a team there is always room to refine approaches, aim higher, and stretch past "good enough."

Embracing excellence and rejecting mediocrity starts with you. Strengthen the caliber of your own work and inspire others to do the same.

If you are languishing at a company that does not value meaningful work, you are in a tough spot but still have agency. Concentrate on what you are learning, why it matters, and how you can best prepare for the next move. Spend time building relationships — some of your colleagues will become close friends and even references. And do not contribute to a culture of apathy. No matter what is going on around you, the team needs your curiosity not your cynicism.

Our team is happy, productive, and hiring — join us!


Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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