Is your culture unintentionally focused on mediocrity?
It’s easy to get wrapped up in how we stack up next to others. However, through this comparison, we often end up being complacent. We explain away not striving for more because there’s always “we’re not as bad as those guys.” Instead, we should focus on how great we can be, and set goals that push us towards excellence.
Dan Diamond equips leaders to make a difference when times are tough. He was the director of the medical triage unit at the New Orleans Convention Center following Hurricane Katrina. He led one of the first teams into Haiti after their devastating earthquake, and he even deployed to the Philippines following Typhoon Yolanda.
I recently interviewed Diamond for the LEADx Leadership Show, where we discussed the culture shift that can lead to disengagement. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You talk about how we lead teams in this world where most people are not engaged at work. What have you discovered?
Dan Diamond: I think what's happening is we've had a shift in our culture. It's been a very subtle shift, but the consequences have been devastating. It's kind of one of those “boiling the frog,” kind of things. It's been slow but we've shifted from being a hero-centric society to a victim-centric society.
We wanted to be great things when we grew up, like astronauts. And we've shifted from this hero's aspirational focus to hoarders. And now we look at hoarders and say, “Well at least I'm not that bad.” If you ever didn't want to spend a Saturday cleaning out your garage, all you have to do is just watch the show Hoarders and go, “Well, I guess my garage isn't that bad at all. I think I'll stay here on the couch.”
Kruse: Why do you think society has moved in this direction?
Diamond: Heroes make us uncomfortable. When I've responded to international disasters, whether it was running the triage unit at the New Orleans Convention Center, or Haiti, or the Philippines, when I see people that are kicking butt despite the fact that they've lost everything, that makes me have a different conversation with myself.
Would I stay fully engaged and make a difference, or would I cave into the whole thing? And when we have people that we aspire to be like, it makes us uncomfortable, but it also makes us better.
As a leader, we have to be really careful about where we look. So if as a leader I'm looking at another organization and saying, “Well, at least we're not that bad.” Or I'm looking at the department I'm leading and say, “Well, at least I'm not as bad as those knuckleheads over there.” It's kind of like talking to a high school kid, and asking, “How are you doing on your grades?” And the kid says, “Well, I’m not getting any F’s.” I say, “Are you striving for mediocrity? I don't understand this.”
But I believe the media sells more advertisements to us if we stay on the couch, so they don't want us to aspire to go do great things. They'd rather we just kind of sat there and paid attention to what they're trying to sell us. It seems like this has become gradually worse and worse, now to the point where we dethrone our heroes. We'll pick at them until we find some sort of flaw, and then throw them to the ground and trample them.
Kruse: How can we shift things back to striving to be the best?
Diamond: I think I'd start with a team. Teams are incredibly powerful. I believe that organizational culture shifts come from the inside of a few people then it spreads to the team.
I came across a fascinating article this week about what percentage of people do you have to have in an organization or a society to change the culture. It is not what I would have thought: It's 10%. If they are committed and won't give up, 10%.
Somebody posted yesterday about, “Culture has to happen from the top down.” I don't think so. I think that culture can shift anywhere you can get people rallied together and start building momentum, and when you get to 10%, things shift.
By settling for “Good enough” or “Not that bad,” we rob ourselves of the opportunity to strive for more. Too often work culture means breaking even, instead of utilizing our imaginations and aspirations to our greatest advantage. Take the time to motivate your team by aiming higher, and not measuring against others.