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How to Spot Mediocracy in the Workplace

Greg de la Cruz works in the tech industry and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.

A woman in a red shirt rests her head on an open laptop. When things get too comfortable at work, shouldn’t you be worried that you aren’t being challenged anymore?

A woman in a red shirt rests her head on an open laptop. When things get too comfortable at work, shouldn’t you be worried that you aren’t being challenged anymore?

Thinking in extremes, there are workplaces that get you pumped on Sunday nights that you can’t wait for the week to start, and there are those that suck your soul at every tick of the clock. As to where mediocracy falls between both ends, I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that a workplace full of average performers with management that tolerates such a situation isn’t such a great place to work.

If you woke up one day and became a Great Place to Work auditor, would you even think an office filled with mediocre employees was worth your time?

Work cultures vary. Some are so popular with workers that companies in the same industry try to imitate and replicate them. And others are notoriously awful that jobseekers tag these companies as no-apply-zones. Mediocracy is a little tricky because it’s one where there are many signs that you’ve found yourself in a decent space:

  • Building relationships is seen as a top priority for any employee.
  • Workers are truly friends with each other, not just during work. They hang out after work and enjoy each other’s company.
  • Your colleagues always have your back, especially when you mess up. They rally behind you when you fail.

These all sound awesome—until you start peeling the façade off to reveal its downsides.

Relationship-building can turn into heavy politicking. Having close friends can mean forming cliques. And rallying behind each other can spiral into a lack of accountability.

What Is Mediocracy?

I first came across the concept of mediocracy while listening to an episode of Adam Grant’s podcast WorkLife titled "The 4 Deadly Sins of Work Culture." Grant, an organizational psychologist and Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years, says there’s a mediocracy when an organization values relationships above results. “People are so worried about getting along,” Grant says, “that they end up forfeiting good work.”

Looking up other meanings of mediocracy online, you won’t get that far:

  • Oxford definition—a dominant class consisting of mediocre people, or a system in which mediocrity is rewarded.
  • Wiktionary definition—a social hierarchy in which the mediocre prevails.
  • Urban Dictionary definition—a society in which people with little (if any) talent and skill are dominant and highly influential.

To understand mediocracy better, it’s worth contrasting this concept with the three other deadly sins of work culture, according to Adam Grant.

Adam Grant and the 4 Deadly Sins of Work Culture

For full appreciation, I highly recommend listening to the full episode. That said, here are the four deadly sins of work culture, according to Adam Grant:

  • Toxicity—the deadliest sin of all, according to Grant. It’s said to be the biggest driver of turnover, even more than burnout or low pay. It’s when “a culture prioritizes results without relationships.” Here, workers don’t get fired for disrespect, exclusion, abuse, or cutthroat actions. They even tend to get promoted for such behavior.
  • Mediocracy—there’s no accountability. Even if you do a terrible job, “you can still get ahead as long as people like you.” The likely outcome for many is falling into the Peter Principle, where they get promoted to their level of incompetence.
  • Bureaucracy—all rules but no risks. Here, new ideas are perceived as threats to the status quo. “People cling to the process and resist creativity and change.” Imagine paperwork for simple requests such as going to the bathroom.
  • Anarchy—the opposite of bureaucracy, where there are risks but no rules. Anything goes. There’s no learning from past mishaps, and there’s chaos everywhere. Here, strategy and structure are afterthoughts.

While Adam Grant didn’t delve deep into what constitutes mediocracy in the workplace, here are seven symptoms you should look out for.

7 Symptoms of Mediocracy

  1. Craving social acceptance
  2. Culture of entitlement
  3. Many incompetent leaders
  4. Challenging norms perceived as negative
  5. Severe misalignment of goals
  6. Valuing presentation rather than impact
  7. Quality management systems seen as paperwork

1. Craving Social Acceptance

Instead of challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone, you lower your own standards so your colleagues accept you. In a workplace that gets by with OK performance, you’ll feel some pressure to please other people. As some solutions require a buy-in from the people affected, the smart thing to do would be to pitch it properly and prepare for the tough questions.

But in a mediocracy, since you care so much about other people’s feelings and fear hurting those relationships—you settle. This is where the fallacy of "the best answer is usually the simplest one" comes into play. You opt for the easier way out, the path of least resistance, because you crave acceptance.

2. Culture of Entitlement

A culture of entitlement means that “your employees arrogantly believe that they deserve a certain level of unreasonable privileges,” says David Taylor in his article "4 Ways to Shred A Culture of Entitlement." According to Taylor, there’s an incorrect assumption that “the current level of success of the organization is because of the work of the current generation of employees.”

He makes a good analogy using the boom-and-bust world of the oil business, where a culture of entitlement is created when workers start believing the hype created by the oil boom madness. These workers start thinking they’re untouchable and irreplaceable when oil companies scramble to hire staff to keep their systems running. But the bust part of the cycle brings them back down to earth once wage rollbacks start, benefit reductions come, and in worst cases, layoffs ensue.

In the same way, in a mediocracy, some workers feel entitled to their own job, believing that their social and hierarchical ties in the company are enough to keep their tenure ironclad. Only then, when new leadership comes and rips out their blanket of comfort, do they realize that they were only kept there because they had friends.

3. Many Incompetent Leaders

As the Peter Principle goes, with The Office character Michael Scott exemplifying it to a T, workers in a mediocracy are promoted to their level of incompetence and stay there.

I don’t believe there’s a workplace out there that paints an accurate portrait of a mediocracy. But I do think that a company that weighs tenure too much as opposed to actual impact when it comes to promotions is prone to lifting up incompetent leaders.

It won’t be surprising to find bootlickers at the very top. They were taught to preserve the status quo and focus on "maintaining a good vibe" so as not to disrupt the way things are done.

4. Challenging Norms Perceived as Negative

Joseph Grenny, who wrote the HBR article "What to Do About Mediocrity on Your Team," made an interesting distinction between the level of accountability within teams and how that translated to the team’s performance:

  • On the weakest teams, there was no accountability.
  • On mediocre teams, bosses were the source of accountability.
  • On high-performing teams, peers managed the vast majority of performance problems with one another.
  • And on top performing teams, teams immediately and respectfully confronted one another when problems arose.

While challenging norms would likely fall under the no accountability class, it may as well fall into the my-boss-is-my-source-of-accountability bucket. And the latter breeds mediocrity among workers—good enough to not get fired but not enough to make any impact.

“Mediocrity is also often a sign of strong supervision,” Grenny says. If you want a top-performing team, he says you need to “build a culture of peer accountability—where everyone can challenge anyone if it is in the best interest of serving the shared mission.”

5. Severe Misalignment of Goals

As the consulting firm Orgametrics says in its article "Complacency and Mediocrity Breeds Misalignment," “A lack of alignment to the mission, vision, and strategic plan will lend itself to behaviors, decisions, and results that are complacent, and eventually mediocre.”

Simply said, when many of your colleagues don’t see your company’s vision, they tend to relax—or "drop the ball" as they usually say. Complacent workers are often the authors of mediocre work.

6. Valuing Presentation Rather Than Impact

While I was tempted many times in the past to fixate on highlighting metrics and achievements and slap them all on shiny PowerPoint slides, I always found myself feeling a sense of emptiness. What had I really achieved by doing so? Did I improve an existing product? Was I able to find a helpful solution? How exactly does my painstakingly prepared presentation move the needle in terms of elevating my company’s value?

In a mediocracy, you’ll discover that such questionings don’t occur very much if they ever so at all. With an emphasis being placed on trying to put on a good show, you’ll wonder where those couple of hours went. I’ve seen the many ways workers, even managers, dress up wasted company time as "culmination ceremonies" or "employee engagement activities."

7. Quality Management Systems Seen as Paperwork

In the mediocracies I’ve had the chance to come across, becoming ISO-certified or maintaining that standard is approached with dread due to the amount of accompanying paperwork. There’s much attention being placed on do we have this document or have we designated this person as X officer, and that—when the emphasis should be placed on doing things the right way.

‘It’s paperwork for paperwork’s sake’ is a common excuse for those who fail to appreciate the importance of having a quality management system. “If you start by focusing on how you want to run your business,” says Roger Etchells of Episode Consultants Ltd., “and decide just how much you want to control things, you will find there isn’t much, if anything, that you won’t be doing daily as business as usual.

Maintaining a quality management system requires buy-in from people who truly want to improve how things are done at work. And I’m afraid you won’t find very many of these people in a mediocracy.

Should You Leave a Mediocracy, or Hope to Change It?

Does any mediocracy have a chance of transforming itself into a meritocracy? You might find that it’s easier to just leave a workplace guilty of one of the four deadly sins of work culture rather than make any effort to change it. Work culture, after all, is one of the heavy factors in our time that determines whether someone stays or chooses to leave.

It often takes an overhaul at the top levels of management to start changing the culture of a workplace. And sometimes, even then, the familiar, comfortable status quo finds a way to outlast any new group of leaders. If this is the organization you work for, it might be doomed. You can stay hopeful that things will change, but just how long are you willing to wait until a new status quo arrives?

Fortunately, you live in a generation where you have a chance to see what other workplaces are like. I’m not encouraging you to leave as soon as you sense there’s something off about the work environment you’ve found yourself in—all I’m suggesting is for you to make an assessment. When things get too comfortable, shouldn’t you be worried that you aren’t being challenged anymore?

Further Reading

For more background on mediocracy, check out these resources for further reading:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz