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:
- 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?
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