Zero tolerance for mediocrity

Talk to any MBA student and they will tell you that there are two styles of management; Theory X and Theory Y. Under the direction of Theory X, it is assumed that people are by nature lazy and irresponsible, and furthermore, if brains were gunpowder, the average employee would not be able to blow their nose. Theory Y managers seek open communications and invite employee participation and feedback while providing clear direction and enough empowerment for their people to grow and make mistakes if necessary.

The Zero Tolerance manager comes from Theory Y and says that you respect and empathize with the employee, while expecting him to perform to the best of his ability. and you never let them settle for less. It says that the manager (or the work team itself) sets expectations and conveys them in such a way that people know that expectations are not arbitrary or debatable, but neither are they punitive.

Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their historical book, In Search of Excellence found that; “Excellent companies are marked by very strong cultures … so strong that you either buy into their standards or you run away. There is no middle house.” When you join the team, you understand that you have to live up to these expectations or you are not part of the team.

Retail superstar Nordstrom’s is a great example of zero tolerance. The people who work there face very high expectations (some do not achieve it) and are assigned many responsibilities. There are only two rules for employees; # 1. Use your best judgment. # 2. If you follow rule n. 1, no other rules are needed.

The US Marines are a zero tolerance team. Expectations are high, discipline is unwavering, and pressure to perform is legendary. But don’t try to remove that “Semper Phi” decal from a Marine’s car. The Marines are a proud and motivated group because they have been part of a tough, unwavering, and worthwhile organization that expects and gets the best of its people. They have learned the truth about teamwork and individual responsibility and have passed the test of Zero tolerance for mediocrity.

You can guide your people toward excellence and self-pride by training them to understand that zero tolerance is the only thing acceptable and if you’re going to be on this team … you will excel.

Rules to remember

# 1 You can never stop leading!

The embattled manager says, “I tell the employees to honor our customers. They write their paycheck.” I tell them “Customer is # 1” but we are still losing market share and I know it is due to poor service habits. “Denial is more than a river in Egypt.

Employees watch your feet, not your lips. The question is what is the manager doing to show the staff where their priorities really lie.

Good intentions are not a substitute for positive results. I remember many years ago I was guilty of complaining about the lack of sales productivity in my team of sales reps. George Morgan, our VP of Sales looked me straight in the eye and said, “Rick, you’ll be amazed at how good they’ll get once your manager gets good!”

Teddy Rooseveldt said, “There are no bad soldiers, only bad officers.” The manager hires, trains, and sets the work environment and ultimately must take responsibility for the results. Everything you and I do as managers affects the fragile attitude, motivation and work ethic of our employees.

As a manager, you can never stop leading. You can’t nail gelatin to a wall. You can’t find a sunrise walking west and you can never stop leading. Someone once said, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.”

# 2 Do with your employees what you would like them to do with your customers.

Who are the most important people who walk through the doors of your business every day? Clients, right? Incorrect!

We learned long ago, while conducting sales training and consulting, that the lowest paid employee on staff can do more business than the highest paid salesperson. Please recognize that the way we treat our people will directly reflect on your attitude toward our customers. It is human nature.

Some managers seem to wait for people to do something wrong, only to correct them. When rules or work directions are unclear, wavering, or arbitrary, people become frustrated and even resentful. And our customers can read it.

Give clear direction and let people know that your expectations are not arbitrary, punitive, or questionable.

Once your staff understand the rules, involve them in making decisions about those rules. Let them know that it is okay to question the rules and that they will have a very positive impact on the organization. As a vendor once told me: “Anyone can walk on water if they know where all the stumps are.”

The German philosopher Goethe said: “Treat a man as he appears to be and you will make him worse. But treat a man as he was already what he could potentially be and make him what he could be.”


Never settle? Never settle for what has always been acceptable or has worked in the past. Settling for past accomplishments leads to complacency. How long will your clients settle for your reputation or past achievements? The greatest enemy of excellence is the “good” and once you settle for the “good”, you will never see excellence again.

A manager once told me that an uncompromising attitude like “never settle” is unreasonable. My question is: “Are your customers reasonable?” If not, maybe it’s time to get unreasonable.

Is the irrational possible? If you’ve never squeezed your staff to find out what’s “unreasonable,” you don’t know what their potential really is. Have unreasonable expectations. Walk around assuming nothing is unreasonable and you will get a whole new definition of what is possible.

One of the greatest dangers facing American industry is the underutilized employee. Typically, employees in the Japanese electronics industry submit 54 suggestions per employee. During the same period, each American employee submitted less than one suggestion.

Front-line people who are intimately familiar with the details of their work environment are not contributing their ideas to promote productivity. They keep telling us “No one is listening, so why try?” We cannot accept or settle for employee complacency that is rooted in old management practices. When employees are involved and empowered in the organization, they will contribute and buy the future of the organization.

A word of caution for managers: Once you ask employees to look beyond what most people assume is reasonable, to what is possible, you must become an advocate for their ideas. You will need to be an active listener and a participant in change. Employee motivation and confidence is fragile and circumstantial and that is the manager’s responsibility.

Finally, we must understand that the impact of zero tolerance for mediocrity extends well beyond the doors of our businesses. It reaches the very fabric of our country, since the only performance standard that a free society can sustain is excellence.


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