Avoiding Mediocrity

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Is your organization designed in such a way that it rewards mediocrity rather than excellence?

Ishmael Yamson, then Chairman of Unilever Ghana Ltd. and Board of University of Ghana Legon, speaking at the New Year School, 2005 had this to say:

Our behaviour will determine to a very large extent whether, as a nation, we can create wealth to eliminate poverty because we should remember our behaviour in the past has brought us to where we are today – unbridled corruption, lack of loyalty to our country and its vision, laziness at work where it is government business, cheating the public system, our preference for mediocrity rather than meritocracy, cronyism, too much talking and little action, poor translation of strategy into action, pervasive indiscipline in our society, our reverence for aid and donor dependency and our lack of courage!

Most of this talks about our work ethic – our attitude to work and the work practices which are born out of the values (that make up our national culture) which we hold about life in general. Yamson’s comment about mediocrity rather than meritocracy is key – most of us will do just the amount of work that will scrape us by to payday but little more. Great organizations were never built that way. Before we rush to blame workers for this scenario we must ask if the wider culture supports or rewards the person who goes the extra mile to excel. In our experience we have found that in many cases the answer is ‘no’.

As Ghanaians, we often try to pull the successful person with initiative down because we believe, out of fear, that he is a threat to the rest of us – that he is showing us up. Because we don’t really know who we are and have not been properly trained and equipped to feel competent in our jobs it is easy to feel threatened by the success of others. Staff who have not been trained to feel secure in their jobs believe they can easily be replaced.

Be Proactive
If you don’t make an attempt to set up a strong organizational culture that rewards the behaviour you expect in your organization then it will fall prey to the negative aspects of the wider Ghanaian culture. In Ghana we bring up children in fear which tends to kill their initiative. We often suppress children’s individuality in order in a bid to make sure they ‘know their place’ as we confuse humility with timidity. Combine this with a learn-by-rote educational system which discourages creative thinking and we have a potent mix that will always put a limit on our greatness and keep us ‘aspiring’ to mediocrity.

You get what you reward. A great leader does not reward mediocrity, he consciously looks for examples of creativity and initiative and seeks to publicly acknowledge them in ALL his people irrespective of their gender, tribe, religion, rank or class.

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