A Self-Talk Gap: Exceptional vs Mediocre Employees

by Alli Polin on November 11, 2014

Self Talk Gap between Exceptional and Mediocre Employees

Having worked as an internal employee in corporate life for nearly twenty years, I’ve hired and worked with some super stars.  It’s no surprise that I’ve also worked with individuals who personified mediocrity.  Since coaching people on strengthening their personal leadership for the past five years, I have spent a lot of time understanding the gap between mediocre employees and exceptional performers as I support people to be and do their best.  Oftentimes, performance is influenced by self-talk as much as real skill gaps.

I can remember when a new hire on my team, who interviewed exceptionally well, came into my office and asked to talk about the project he was managing.  Our conversation went something like this:

“How do I know what to do if I’ve never done it?” he asked.

“You’ve done training before,” I said.  “We talked about your experience during your interview.  I’m confident that you’ve got this.”

“Yes, of course I have, but I’ve never done this.” he said.

“You’ve managed projects in your old company to great success,” I said.


“What’s stopping you here?” I asked.

“The approach is a new one for me and I’ve never trained on this topic before.  How do you know how to do it?” he asked, needing a solid answer.

“I don’t.  All any of us can do when we don’t know how is to create something fresh.  Based on what we did before, we imagine.  That’s what makes the work fun.  I think you’re afraid of the blank page and getting it wrong.  Take it somewhere and we’ll figure it out together.”

He agreed, but in the end, the blank page won the battle and he could not move it forward on his own.  It seemed that he was great at implementing directions and integrating feedback, but vision wasn’t his strong suit.  Thing is, I believe he did have vision, but was too scared to go out on a limb and feeling too new to take a risk. 

The Gap between exceptional and mediocre employees can sometimes be a fine line – often defined by the gap in their self-talk.

Which statements ring true for you in your work, life and leadership?

Mediocre: I will not move a muscle without detailed instructions on what to do next.

Exceptional: I love to imagine where the work can go – prototyping, scoping and defining next steps.

Mediocre:  I can do it, but I’d rather if someone else figures it out.

Exceptional:  I can do it.

Mediocre: I don’t edit my work because my boss usually does that.

Exceptional: I don’t submit my work until I’m satisfied it’s my best effort.

Mediocre:  I meet my deadlines almost all of the time. That’s pretty good.

Exceptional:  I meet my deadlines, but also try to exceed what I deliver… because just this little bit more will make it a lot better.

Mediocre:  I need to set up a 1×1 with my boss so I have something to do next week.

Exceptional:  I need to set up a 1×1 so they know where I’m headed.

Mediocre: I’ll help others if I have time.

Exceptional: Part of what I love about work is helping others.

Mediocre:  I don’t want to mess up.

Exceptional:  I don’t want to mess up, but if I do, I’ll fix it.

Mediocre: I believe I’ve done what I needed to do.

Exceptional:  I believe in myself.

Mediocre:  I’m bored.

Exceptional:  I’m going to find ways to be creative.

Mediocre:  My boss is holding me back.

Exceptional:  I’m holding me back.

Truth is, self-beliefs and self-talk aside, I recognize that not everyone is going to be a rock star at work.  Still, knowledge and skill are not always the primary differentiators between exceptional and mediocre employees.  Look for the people on your team who need a champion, be the person who sees their potential and helps them to unleash the rock star within.  It’s your leadership that will inspire others to rise to their gifts and use their capabilities at their highest level.

Break the Frame Action:

Ask Yourself:

  • Who along the way believed that you had the potential to be exceptional?  What did they do to unleash the rock star in you?
  • What do you need to move forward with greater confidence and creativity in this moment?
  • What’s holding you back from reaching your potential?

What would you add?  Even better, how have you supported someone to break out of a rut of mediocrity to be and do their very best?

For coaching, consulting or speaking Let’s Connect!


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Terri Klass November 11, 2014 at 7:42 am

What an invigorating post, Alli!

Being able to swap negative chatter and insecurity for positive self-talk is critical. I have even looked at myself in the mirror and said the words: “You’ve been in tougher situations than this. You can do this!” It may sound a bit nutty, but seeing my mouth say the words is empowering.

Recently I did a speech and was so worried about how the audience would receive it. What I learned was being prepared and practicing the presentation over and over was the key. I began to own it. When I delivered the speech I was on automatic and able to run away with new ideas without panicking.

Thanks Alli!


Alli Polin November 12, 2014 at 6:09 am

A friend of mine went to a training that taught her to look in the mirror and say positive affirmations. The first week it was silly and by the second week it really made a difference. Self-talk really does impact our confidence and actions.

Love the story about your speech! Thanks for sharing it here.



Tom Rhodes November 11, 2014 at 7:57 am

We walk that fine line it seems everyday. Not only at work but in society. A mediocre Dad or Exceptional Dad based on how we model the role. A mediocre or exceptional spouse based on how we support our partner. Or a medicore or exceptional friend based on our willingness to listen or need to talk. Sometimes being mediocre or exceptional is in how we give ourselves to others versus what take from them. I love your exceptional characteristics because all of them can be achieved with the desire to make that choice. We must chose to be exceptional in all walks of life and be humble while doing it. By the way; you are exceptional.
Thanks for all you do.


Alli Polin November 12, 2014 at 6:11 am

I had a teacher of mine ask me a powerful question once during my coach training and it’s one I often use and one I’ll never forget:

How far am I willing to go in service of my client?

That question has served me (and now my clients) well in so many aspects of life.

How far am I willing to go in service of ____________?

It really is about self-belief but beyond that it all comes down to choice. Will I stay comfortable or go just a little bit further…

Thank you, Tom, for your comment. It forwards my thinking and the conversation.


Cynthia November 11, 2014 at 8:31 am

Excellent post my friend! This should be shared with all of our teams that we work with. I will be sure to do that. Thank you Alli for always posting exceptional articles. You are awesome!


Alli Polin November 12, 2014 at 6:12 am

Thanks! Your support means a ton! You’re a terrific example of of someone who is consistently making the choice to go the extra mile.


Jon Mertz November 11, 2014 at 8:43 am


Moving to exceptional is choice by at least two people — the team leader and the individual leader. The team leader needs to paint the picture of what success looks like and communicate why creating this masterpiece is needed. The individual leader needs to absorb it in and step up to the actions required to create this masterpiece. In the middle is collaboration between the two leaders. In the collaboration, strength in expectation and delivery is built. Over time, the team leader may take a few steps back and the individual leader will take a few steps up.

Collaborative leadership may be part of the answer.

Great points in challenging us to think in how we do this in a way to help both. Thanks! Jon


Alli Polin November 12, 2014 at 6:15 am

As always, your comments add so much value to the conversation. Thank you, Jon!

It truly does take two to tango when it comes to life, leadership and co-creating success.

I also recognize that many of the statements I use above can be chalked up to organizational culture. Does the boss empower exceptional leadership or keep people small and under their thumb? We learn behaviors based on the culture and when we make a professional shift, it takes time to readjust, trust and grow into our best self.

Thanks again!


John Bennett November 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

Sadly, too many college faculty – especially at research universities – are in fact directly or indirectly reminded that mediocre teaching is acceptable, as long as the research funding keeps rolling in. The tenure, merit raises, and promotions reward the research – as long as the teaching is “ok.”

But that’s not the only culprit in education: too many K-12 teachers have also found that mediocre is ok. As I reviewed the statements above, I have heard all too many of them from mediocre teachers…

AND of course, the teachers (K-12 and post-secondary) seeking the safe, that is mediocre, route leads to the “tell them what to study and ask them to give it back to you approach” that eliminates the possibility of effective learning for all too many students. Indeed, too many students say in one way or another: “Tell me what I need to know!”

Those of us educators seeking to facilitate effective learning do it on our own most often. It takes tremendous caring and dedication to get a minority of students to take control of their learning. Ironically, we rarely get the recognition / awards / rewards we might deserve because too many of the students and colleagues rebel against our goals and objectives.


Alli Polin November 12, 2014 at 6:20 am

So much in your comment, John. Thank you.

It’s been interesting seeing my children come from the US education system where they frequently had to memorize in and Australia where they are forced to apply lessons in a new way. It was definitely a period of adjustment. Even in math, here they do mental maths and writing down the formula was discouraged. I rebelled and often wondered aloud how they’d ever learn without the formula to guide them. Truth is, they have and they understand far more about the way the problem works than how to put it on a piece of paper and run the calculations.

We’re lucky that there are educators like you that are willing to fight for our children and teachers to focus on what matters most – not regurgitation of facts, but learning.

Thanks, John!


Samantha Hall November 12, 2014 at 7:44 am

Hi Alli!

For me, I try to look at things holistically. Asking questions and exploring. All too often we might attribute someone’s less then stellar performance to be an insecurity or fear issue, when it may just be other factors are involved. Not all of the time, but often enough they are worth considering.

Some other possibilities to explore might be:

-Family difficulties at home, including child care issues, and struggling to separate work from family and simply having a value that they aren’t going to go ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ that ‘star performers’ are known to do. This is a values issue rather then one of insecurity or fear.

-A simple case of wrong person for the job. i.e. fish can’t climb trees and trying to do so can cause a genius to spend it’s whole life believing he/she is stupid’ >> based off of a famous quote.

-Needs more training in a particular area. Each new task, project, situation is going to naturally expose our strengths and deficiencies in various ways. It’s a learning opportunity to help guide us to what we need to learn and work on next.

– Different learning styles. Some are more visual learners then others. Some are more hands on, etc.

I mention this because some people, if they know you consider them to be ‘mediocre’ (which is a belief and judgment about them) , it’s not exactly going to inspire or make people want to work harder to serve or please. It tends to set up resistance and even if the word is never used verbally, the belief or lack of it can still be felt.

For others, I realize this MAY get people to work harder if they lean more into the people pleasing side of the house. However, if leadership demonstrates a lack of faith in their people, it will still tend to have a negative impact even if they are still working hard to aim to please.

I really think it helps when we figure out our gifts and we work to put people in the right spots. To find the right fit for people. For many, this will be trial and error. People will naturally excel when they find the right fit for them.

Thanks for sharing Alli! xo


Alli Polin November 12, 2014 at 5:54 pm

Excellent points. Hiring mis-match, personal lives, skill gaps, self-talk can all impact someone’s ability to be and do their best. The intent of this piece is to emphasize that leaders should never write someone off as mediocre, but instead figure out what someone needs to be successful. There are things, like challenges at home, leaders can’t fix or simply send to training to remedy, but they can develop a relationship that enables understanding.

For people who seek coaching, self-talk is often a big component, not to trump all of the other things that go into an overall picture of someone’s performance potential.

Thanks for brining forward these points in your comment, Samantha!


Amanda November 15, 2014 at 7:38 am

Thank you for this post. I read it from the perspective of being an employee who is recognized at my company for being exceptional in what I do despite not having as much experience or technical skills as others around me. I didn’t completely understand what was differentiating me as being exceptional from the mediocre employees around me., until I read your post. As I read the self-talk statements you list, I identified with all the exceptional ones and saw examples of what my co-workers around me voice which are the mediocre ones. This is very helpful to me, not only to understand how I may be doing what I do, but also helping me to coach and mentor those who come to me for assistance in their roles and careers.

Thank you.


Alli Polin November 16, 2014 at 7:26 pm

First of all, welcome! I absolutely love that this will help to support your coaching and mentoring efforts moving forward. Skills matter tremendously but so does our self belief and self talk. I’ve too lacked skills or formal education in particular areas relative to my peers but received top ratings. It really is possible.

Truly appreciate that you shared your experience here.




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