Steven's Blog

Leader holding up employee who stands out from mediocrity and tradition.

No Tradition in Mediocrity

If you have ever heard someone use the adjectives traditional Japanese to describe an uninspiring manager, the moniker is only half-true. Only by replacing the word traditional with mediocre can you accurately reflect reality. There is nothing traditional about mediocrity in Japan, just as anywhere else in the world.

It never ceases to surprise me when business leaders describe a member of staff who is punching well below his or her weight as a traditional Japanese manager, as if all Japanese managers who are somehow beholden to the norms of Japanese tradition were members of a single class with uniform ineptitude. Yet, I can tell you with certainty from experience that there is no more shortage of Japanese who are excellent managers by any standard than anywhere else in the world. If you find a dearth of excellent managers in your business, it is not because of Japanese tradition. Rather, it is the traditions in your own company that you ought to examine. Click To Tweet

In the years immediately following the end of World War Two in Japan, just meeting basic needs for survival—food, shelter, etc.—was challenging. Job security commanded a high premium, and lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion were the gold standard of the most exclusive and desirable employers. Yet, even though satisfying basic needs have not been an issue in Japan for some time now, the traditions have persisted. Even in companies where formal policies don’t exist, the presumption is often that all employees uniformly prioritize security and certainty over all else. Yet, this is not the case.

The excellent always prioritize opportunity over security and gravitate to businesses where they perceive there is the greatest opportunity for themselves. This is not to say that job security does not matter to the excellent people. It does. It’s just that job security guaranteed by the company is not a priority for them when deciding where to work. Excellent people are confident in their capabilities, and it is these on which they rely for security, whether in keeping a job they like, or leaving one they don’t to find a new one. Excellent people never worry about not being able to find other work.

Your organization attracts people who prioritize your priorities. If your organization has a tradition prioritizing job security over all else, you will attract and retain people whose priorities match, while driving away people whose priorities don’t. The HR department in one of my client’s companies, unbeknownst to the company CEO, refused to consider firing even the most inept of staff for fear of becoming known as a company where job security is limited. “The best candidates won’t want to work for us!” their HR director contended. In the same breath, the HR also lamented, “Most of the candidates who apply with us are mediocre at best, and many of our best employees have left the company out of frustration.”

Yet, in the same company, a division head who happens to prioritize excellence over all else, fired ninety percent of her staff whom she deemed mediocre over the objections of HR. As a result, excellent staff in other parts of the business requested to be transferred to her division, and she was able to attract superb new-hires even while HR complained about a dearth of good candidates. She created her own island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity merely by being uncompromising about her priorities. You attract the kind of people whose priorities match yours.

Damaging traditions are insidious as they are rarely explicit and can be hard to detect. A newly appointed leader of an organization is often unaware of their existence, even though the result for the business is obvious. In the example above, HR had no explicit policy regarding retaining staff no matter the cost. It was merely a tradition HR practiced. Similarly, HR had no explicit policy of seniority-based promotion, yet seniority is always a priority in HR’s consideration of who to promote, even when there are more junior candidates who are superior in capability. The company’s CEO only found out about these traditions when he asked.

If you suspect that damaging traditions persist in your organization, ask around. Ask how decisions are made and for real cases of people who were hired or promoted. You might find you have some company traditions that are time to replace. The only tradition you should have in your business is prioritizing excellence over all else.


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