Forget about total quality management, re-engineering, best of breed, best practices, and all those other pop management buzzword battle cries that sound pretty hollow compared to some of today's realities of the workplace. The real focus should be put on struggling to get employees as well as some managers and executives out of the mental grasp of the "Vortex of Declining Mediocrity (Theory V)."
About two decades ago while teaching technology management courses at Northwestern University, I had adult students who all worked full-time in various IT jobs within multiple industries as well as government. After hearing some lame excuses about not being able to complete a homework project or not being able to accomplish a group task, I had to somehow focus them on developing a sense of urgency and applying themselves to the work at hand instead of them coming up with excuses.
We had discussed the various management styles in business: Theory X, Theory Y, and the latest concept that came out as Theory Z, a book about the Japanese management style by Dr. William Ouchi. I painted a dire picture of organizations that suffered from this lingering problem of people not having a sense of urgency or self-motivation to get the job done. I pointed out the Vortex of Declining Mediocrity is the unknown psycho-magnetic depressive mental force that pulls morale and, consequently, performance down. It creates a doomloop to eventual failure. It's out there in virtually every organization, industry and government agency.
"Who cares? It's good enough for this job."
"We can't do that right now."
"Wait until next year's budget."
"No one will notice the error."
"My dog ate my homework."
"It's not my job!"
"I have a headache, I can't concentrate."
"For what I get paid, that's more than enough effort."
"Ship it the way it is—they'll never know the difference!"
All of these are outward, sometimes malicious, reactions to legitimate questions concerning the lack of quality in products, services and customer service offered by those succumbing to the Vortex of Declining Mediocrity.
What is it? Theory V
From my perspective, before Management Theories X, Y, and Z, comes V—Theory V. Theory V represents the Vortex of Declining Mediocrity. It is the downward swirling negative psychological pull, which is apparent in all organizations, especially those that have just gone through a downsizing, a non-productive re-engineering phase, general mismanagement or other traumatic negative experience to its staff. It attracts everyone in its path, and some immediately fall into its grip leading to a downward performance cycle because they are comfortable with its false sanctuary.
The Vortex provides an excuse for poor performance, and if used enough, it provides an easy way out, not only for the individual, but also for the leadership of the organization.
Classical Theory X managers have always known about this phenomenon and created a pressure environment for taking care of the slackers and those not concerned about performing well. "No one wants to work, and they must be constantly watched and motivated," was the classic observation of Theory X managers.
Theory Y managers tried to ignore Theory X as well as the Vortex and its negative influence by creating a more positive, country club environment for employees to work in. "Everyone wants to work and contribute—give them a chance." This was the observation of Theory Y managers.
Theory Z managers also looked the other way on the negative motivations but did acknowledge the threat of the Vortex. They created a team approach to overcome and work against the forces of the Vortex. "Together as a team, we will overcome failure and drive to success!" was the mantra of Theory Z managers from Japan.
Who or what created the vortex?
The Vortex of Declining Mediocrity was created by several diverse sources: management, politicians, society, and peers, as well as efforts of the individuals, themselves. As people get away with doing less in their respective jobs, they expect more reward for less effort, and the overall quality level slips. This applies to organizations and their customer service levels as well. Does this apply to your organization?
Some managers will acknowledge this performance slip to irritated customers by saying "that's the best we can do." This rationalization is readily apparent in many occupations including the trades. How many electrical installations have bad connections, loose wiring, overfilled cable trays, and sloppy, spaghetti-bowl configurations?
Others might notice the slip in service or product quality but not be willing to pay for excellence. "I know that I am not getting the best service or quality I used to, but I saved all of this money - you know these guys are cheaper." Those are the gullible management types that believe that there's something like a new $5,000 Rolls-Royce out there waiting to be driven. There’s not! Just like there’s not a Formula One Yugo for $5,000 out there either.
The old adage, "You get what you pay for," is still a basic observation that holds true no matter what the latest management buzzphrase is. Expectations for goods and services should be realistic at both the high end as well as the low end of the market spectrum.
Where is the Vortex?
The Vortex can be everywhere. It can be found in the workplace, the airlines, the post office, the government, the courts, and other bureaucratic organizations. It is apparent anywhere you see customers accepting less than they should in terms of service, product quality and other deliverables.
An organization’s size, industry, rank or profitability are all irrelevant qualifiers for potential organizations that could succumb to Theory V. The lack of leadership is a more likely organizational catalyst for the Vortex to appear.
What fuels Theory V?
Values have to be taught at a young age. Self-responsibility for an individual’s action and performance as well as learning how to recover from failure are good survival skills. We all know that no one is perfect and cannot be successful at everything. So teach people how to exploit those skills they do have and develop those they don’t.
People seduced and trapped in the Vortex despise those that are not pulled in by its force. Someone that has overcome the Vortex is pretty powerful, no matter what job or industry affiliation they may have. They are dynamic and motivated to succeed. This ability grates on those caught up in the excuses, whining, politics, and ultimate failure of the Vortex. They are jealous of the individual that has beaten the Vortex's power.
How do you reverse the Vortex's effects? A strong leader or a positive role model is important to have. As Malcolm Forbes once said, “He who has the wheel, sets the direction.”
The person who is at the helm of any organization really establishes the course of being successful—or running the people and resources in the downward spiral on the Vortex.