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The survival-by-mediocrity rule

Companies oftentimes wonder why they have such low motivation levels. Numbers vary depending on the study, but according to some studies, research indicates that on average, only about 25% of employees are actively engaged and excited about the work they are doing for an organisation, while the rest is passive, or even try to sabotage the organisation (up to 17% according to some studies!).

A lot of reasons are given, but could it be that sometimes the most simple dynamic is overlooked?

It is an unhappy paradox that it is oftentimes the selfish takers, those who only look out for their own interests, who manage to look like they are unselfish givers, i.e. good employees or volunteers, while the truly unselfish givers oftentimes look „difficult“. A few of those selfish takers can change the culture in your company in unfortunate ways, even if most of your employees are neutral or would naturally be givers, who truly believe in the company.

Why is that?

It is due to a simple feedback mechanism. 

Selfish takers do not care about the job, or the employer or manager as a person. All they focus on, is how to get what they want. The best way to do that, is to blend in until they can take something, or take advantage of someone, and they are NEVER the ones sticking their neck out solving real trouble, unless they are fairly certain they will get massive credit for it. Therefore, they seldom get in trouble.

The true givers, on the other hand, will sort out trouble, whether it makes them look good or not, and it will be them who get burnt by it, when it invariably goes wrong on occasion. In addition, it is those who really care and spend themselves selflessly giving, who get most hurt when their contribution is not recognized or even rejected by the management, and their reaction to that perceived injustice is then perceived as „difficult“. 

A selfish taker, on the other hand, does not mind much when his or her work is criticized, and he „takes it well“, because the person knows he has done practically nothing all day or all week, has taken advantage of several people already, and should have been yelled at much earlier. He may even silently congratulate himself that he got away with it for so long, and he can then happily launch into his previously rehearsed „I‘m so sorry and so humble“-speech, which always comes over so well. The real givers, on the other hand, have no previously rehearsed „I‘m so sorry and so humble“-speech, because they never planned on doing anything wrong in the first place, and they are so hurt to be shouted at unfairly after doing all the work for everyone else, they cannot come up with it on the spot, nor do they feel like it, it all being so unfair and all.

To make things worse, someone who really cares will work a lot more than those who are just taking - so the takers will get upset because they think they are made to look bad by the giver, and they will find people to gang up on the giver, trying to find a way to make him or her look bad in turns - which is not hard, as the odd one out is always assumed to be the anti-social one.

The vast majority of employees is probably somewhere in between in a rather neutral space. They watch the dynamic, and decide that it is really too painful to care, and they will either try to stay neutral or actively side with the selfish taker, because they do not want to be targeted by the taker like the giver was - they will feel bad about it, but tell themselves that "there is nothing you can do".

That is why being motivated as employee or volunteer oftentimes is not the best strategy - if you really care, you better keep a lid on it. Sometimes, givers feel that there seems to be no other way than to find a way to care less, and deliberately mess up or do less, so they will pass undetected, and if they get yelled at, at least they know it’s deserved, and they won’t get upset. In addition, they will suddenly get all the connection and love from their colleagues they ever wanted, because the worse they perform, the better they make everyone else look. Their employer will reward them as well, because the employer assumes that the givers must have obviously gotten "more social", because all their co-workers now like them, and there is no more "trouble".

In other words, good work is very oftentimes penalized in the work place, while mediocrity is rewarded.

This is a dynamic most employees are well aware of, even if they cannot put it into words, and I have seen it in a variety of work places, in a variety of industries. So, it really does not matter what incentives the company gives for good performance, people will try to stay within the pack and not be seen - i.e. they will aim to stay bang in the middle, because while being too good gets them hated by other employees, as well as the boss, being too bad may get them sacked. It is the race to the middle, not unlike what you would see in sheep when the wolves circle.

But is that really the way to find fulfillment in a job?

Fulfillment comes from a sense of growth and contribution, from a sense of accomplishment and pride, but it is hard to feel that one has truly contributed when one, well, hasn't there is this nagging sense of dissatisfaction, and the more years go by, the more the feeling grows that one could have done more, could have BEEN more, and that life got wasted - so let's just let it out on the next motivated person who makes us all look bad... And hey, there is always the weekend, it's nothing that a glass of wine can't fix, or two, or a bottle, and hey, drinking every day isn't so bad...and after a few decades of this, people tend to get the bill with their health. It may take decades off their lives, but worse then this, it took a lot of the joy out of it even before getting there.

So what is the answer?

Have you made this experience in your company? How have you dealt with this, either as an employee or a manager? If so, and you are an employer, have you found a way to motivate all people to give their best and stop being afraid to perform? If so, how did you install that positive culture? If you are an employee, have you found a company that managed this dynamic well? How did they do it?

We'd love to hear from you, please comment below the post on Linked-in, Facebook or Twitter, or send us an email at, we'd be interested in your opinion!



Twitter: @changeimplement

Facebook: @changeimplementation

Change Implementation Management Ltd

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