It was a case of mistaken identity.
I walked into my local Papa John’s to pick up a carryout pizza. I’m too cheap to pay for delivery and tip the driver. My order was delivered to the counter quickly and I paid. As the well-intentioned young man behind the counter was handing me the receipt he said, “Thank you for your service.” I smiled and nodded, not knowing what he meant. It wasn’t until I got to the car that it dawned on me. He mistook the Dallas Cowboys star logo on my coat sleeve for a United States Air Force star. I live near a United States Air Force base so it is not uncommon to see our service men and women around town. Easy mistake.
I have to admit I felt guilty for getting praise I didn’t earn or deserve. I don’t want to take anything away from the brave men and women who volunteer to serve our country.
I was raised to believe that you strive to do your best because it is the right thing to do. Give your best effort as a matter of pride not as a matter of praise. Applause is something you earn for being exceptional.
I remember going through some old boxes with my father. Years earlier, he served in the United States Marines Corps and the box contained mementos of his military days. He did his basic training at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Several shiny items in the box caught my eye immediately. They were marksmanship qualification badges that he earned while enlisted. He reached the highest rank of expert and was rewarded for his skills. I don’t recall seeing a medal just for showing up.
As leaders, we have some people on our teams, who think they deserve a medal just for showing up. They have been praised for doing the minimum or taught to believe everyone should get a ribbon. These low expectations work against us.
We fail as leaders when we allow low expectations to continue unchecked.
The art of leadership means finding the delicate balance between high and low expectations for our organization. If our expectations are too low, we can unwittingly impede their progress and allow them to be lazy. Our organization will suffer from mediocrity and our team members will quickly disengage from meaningful contribution.
On the other hand, if our expectations are unrealistically high, our organization will have little to celebrate and team members are in danger of becoming exhausted and discouraged also resulting in disengaged team members.
When our expectations are just right, we see a steady progression of growth in both the organization and the individual team members.
We have that in common with video game designers. A game designer knows that if you make a game too easy, people are going to get bored and not play. If you make it too hard, people won’t continue to play because they don’t see progress. The key is making each level challenging enough to entice players to stay engaged so they can progress to the next level.
So how do we walk find this fine line?
Here are a couple ideas:
- Build relationships with people on your team, so you know what motivates them.
- Set a baseline of minimum expectations and communicate them regularly.
- Praise progress rather than low performance.
- Reward people when they do an excellent job.
- Find ways to help people step up.
People will rise to the level of our expectations.
What expectations do you have for your team members? Which team members are doing well and which ones are demonstrating an attitude of entitlement for just showing up? How long can you afford to allow low expectations to impede the progress of the team?
I would love to hear your thoughts on how you keep challenging your teams.