Why Entrepreneurs Must Fight Mediocrity

The partial-reinforcement extinction effect is a real threat, which is why it's up to competitive business people to keep standards high.

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By John Brubaker


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

At the start of each year, I go through an exercise where I ask myself one question: What do I, my clients and my community need more of this year? I also take my coaching clients through this activity. For 2016, what many of them -- myself included -- have determined is that we need to raise our standards.

It's my hope for you that you'll ask this same question and arrive at a similar answer. Why? Because the biggest threat to our country's success isn't terrorism -- it's domestic terrorism of a different sort. We are on the front lines fighting a daily battle against an enemy known as mediocrity, and it's a home grown self-inflicted threat.

Standards are being lowered all around us. On three separate occasions in the past 10 years, the military has lowered its enlistment standards. And combat fitness standards are currently on the table with the Dempsey rule. The nation's credit rating was downgraded for the first time just a couple years ago. Grade inflation in colleges runs rampant, with 43 percent of all grades being an A today compared to 15 percent in 1960. Lowering our standards is the proverbial "death by a 1,000 paper cuts." Whether it's a chain, a company or a nation, we are only as strong as our weakest link.

Related: How a Warm Body Sometimes Can Be Worse Than Nobody at All

It is said that sport is a metaphor for society. My daughter is a competitive horseback rider, I was too as a kid. When I rode, there were just three winners at each event: blue, red and gold ribbons. A lot of people went home empty handed -- and rightfully so.

Not today. At the shows she enters, everyone gets a ribbon. Initially, she liked it and hung all her ribbons up on her bedroom wall. When I asked her about how the ribbons made her feel, she responded that they made her proud. To which I responded "Even the ones where you didn't finish in the top three?" She didn't answer (her silence was the real answer). Shortly thereafter, she decided to just keep the blue ribbons up, and recently they all went in a box in her closet. Her ability has plateaued over the past year, and I can't help but attribute much of that to the fact that when we reward participation alone, we breed complacency.

The participation trophy is the extracurricular version of grade inflation. When standards are lowered, so is achievement motivation. Research indicates the result in classrooms is a 50 percent decrease in effort and study time when the average student expected to receive an A as opposed to the same course taught by a professor, where the students expect to receive a C.

How does this impact entrepreneurs?

The same helicopter parents who invented the participation trophy now occupy leadership positions within companies. The same children who received participation trophies for everything are now the young adults who think they should receive a B for simply showing up to most classes in college.

This generation believes that simply showing up is enough are entering the workforce. The disease of mediocrity is being championed by leaders in our country. You reap what you sow, and we are reaping the seeds of mediocrity, enabling and entitlement that were sown years ago and continue to be sown. If we're not careful, entrepreneurship could be the next victim.

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is right about one thing. We need to "Make America Great Again," but I'm not talking about closing our borders to immigrants or raising a wall. I'm talking about raising our own personal standards. If you think this phenomenon is limited to youth sports or school, you're mistaken.

Related: 7 Life Rules That Will Position You for Greater Success

A client of mine, Susan, is the director of human resources at a large health-care organization. She recently called me to vent about a disturbing conversation she had. She was interviewing a candidate for potential placement in the hospital's physician residency program, and the candidate came for her interview with her parent in tow. Susan told the mother her "child" would be interviewing alone, handed mom a map and suggested she take a walking tour of the community, to which the mother responded defensively "but who will negotiate her salary for her?" (Never mind the fact that her precious little angel hadn't even been offered a position yet, and the salary for a resident is non-negotiable.)

Somewhere along the way, the idea that in order to be more, you must become more stopped being passed down a generation. There's an entire generation of millennials in the work force who have been praised for being "gifted, special, talented" -- even when many aren't. It's a false affirmation that has led to delusion and collectively lower standards.

You reap what you sow, and we are experiencing the effects of the participation trophy children. Now, whenever many of these young adults fail, they look outward to place blame instead of inward to take responsibility.

The psychological term for what we are seeing is called partial-reinforcement extinction effect, and we are seeing it almost everywhere. What that means is that when you constantly reward people, they will never learn resilience in the face of adversity.

We have a far bigger problem in this country than we are collectively willing to admit, and as entrepreneurs, we have a far greater responsibility than we might realize.

Our country has done a disservice to an entire generation of children by teaching them there aren't winners and losers. In so many places, the scoreboard has been magically removed to protect their self-esteem. As a result, their competitive edge has been dulled -- the very thing that fuels entrepreneurial success.

For entrepreneurs at the end of the day, it's about performance, not feelings. There are no A's for effort -- produce, or you're fired so to speak. The country needs more of the high standards we have as entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is the last meritocracy, and we must protect that, expand it and be the shining example of the value of a higher standard for others to follow. If not us, then who?

For more game-changing strategies to turn your potential into performance, join my free weekly newsletter.

Related: 10 Ways Entrepreneurs Think Differently

John Brubaker

Performance Consultant, Speaker & Award-Winning Author

John Brubaker is a nationally renowned performance consultant, speaker and award-winning author. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, Coach Bru helps organizations and individuals turn their potential into performance.

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