Mediocrity Is Contagious And What To Do About It

Mediocrity is contagious. Or rather, a social influence plays a substantial role in your performance when you enter a new organizational culture.

Henri Tajfel and John Turner formulated a social identity theory in the 1970s. In simple terms, it states that certain intergroup behaviors can be predicted on the basis of perceived group status differences, and they influence individual’s ability to move between social groups. Together with self-categorization theory, that John Turner formulated later, it argues that individuals derive their self-concept from the group they are part of. The theories suggest that organization can change the behavior of its members and their self-identity.

This can work both to person’s advantage, and to their disadvantage. People are often willing to sacrifice their self-interest to maintain the self-perception of them being part of a given social group. This plays a significant role in elections, or sports events. If we want to increase our own self-image, we do it by enhancing the status of the group we belong to.

I still remember the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998. The Czech Republic ice hockey team won the gold medal, and it created a massive wave of euphoria in the nation. Everyone celebrated by jumping and shouting, “Kdo neskáče není Čech” meaning “Who’s not jumping isn’t Czech.” Everyone one felt like this is their victory only because they belonged to the same social group (in this case a nation). I can’t play ice hockey, but at that moment I felt like I could. I was proud of the group I belonged to. It increased my self-value.

“The theories suggest that organization can change the behavior of its members and their self-identity.”

So how does this all fit into a company culture? It is straightforward. Every person you hire will eventually identify with the culture you have or they quickly self-select themselves out. If you have a culture where mediocrity is tolerated, hiring a couple of smart and hardworking A players may not help you. If it is a significant enough number in critical positions, then they may push the change of the culture through, but more likely it will be just a couple of enthusiastic people who will eventually give up on trying to change anything.

What is worse they adopt the identity of the group, “mediocre is good enough; don’t rock the boat; don’t try to change things; this is not how we do things around here; we don’t like troublemakers.”

I remember the first time I said the words, “that is not how we do things here. That is not our way.” I couldn’t even believe I said that. For several years I was constantly challenging the status quo and trying new things. I love change. I like trying something new every now and then. But at that moment I realized that I’m finally part of the culture. The way how things were done in that company was suddenly part of me. For better or worse. I’ve got my blinders on.

Social identity helps us to form groups by reaching a consensus on what is important, what behavior is acceptable and what not, and how do we define a common goal. However, there are some pitfalls. People may pretend identification with the group while still having their self-interest on the top of their mind. I love the quote from George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Nicole Lipkin in her book What Keeps Leaders Up at Night uses this as an example of social loafing.

Social loafing is a concept first described by Max Ringelmann when measuring the pulling strength of men tugging ropes. What he discovered was that the bigger number of men were pulling the rope the less each of them pulled. If they worked individually, they’ve really given it all they’ve got. Sometimes it is too easy to hide in the group.

“Social loafing is often subconscious. You simply identify with the culture of mediocre performance and don’t see yourself doing anything unacceptable.”

That is why it is so vital for everyone on the team to understand the impact of their work. If all they know is that the results of their work won’t have much impact on the results of the team they will not pull the rope with all their strength. You can show that what the person does matters, only by explicitly stating the desired outcome of individual’s work. Only by recognizing the work you show the person that even though they are part of a team, their individual contribution is seen and appreciated. Only then will everyone give it their best.

Social loafing is often subconscious. You simply identify with the culture of mediocre performance and don’t see yourself doing anything unacceptable. “Could I do a bit more? Yes, probably. However, that is not who we are. No one else is stepping up, why should I.”

What can you do to help your team to the top performance? What can you do for social loafers to see what they are doing and either start pulling their weight or self-selected themselves out of the team?

Everyone should have clear individual goals that are aligned with team goals – if people understand what they personally need to do, what is the desired outcome, and how they will be measured, they are less likely to loaf.

The goals are clearly explained, and the meaning of the work is understood by everyone on the team – if the purpose of the work the person or the team is doing is unclear and people feel that what they do doesn’t matter they are less likely to try hard. By making it clear how the team, and each individual impacts the lives of others you increase their desire to work to the best of their abilities.

Everyone on the team understands how the team is doing when compared with other teams – it is often only at the point when you see how your group does compare to other groups that you realize you are not that good as you thought. You might be the best person in your own group, so you feel there is no need to do better, but then you are confronted with a group where everyone is so much better than you. This encounter will help you realize that you are not working to the best of your abilities and it pushes you to improve.

People feel a strong emotional connection to the rest of the team – if people connect with their teammates on the more emotional level if they consider them friends or have a feeling of being a part of a family they are less likely to succumb to social loafing. You are not that sort of person who would abuse friendship, are you? By focusing on building a strong team spirit and camaraderie you improve the performance of each individual and the group as the whole.

There are no redundancies, and people understand others depend on them – if people know that the work they won’t do because of lack of effort will be done by someone else they won’t try as hard. It is often only when people understand that they are the only ones who can get that work done when they push themselves to their limits. It is difficult to be a social loafer when everyone clearly sees you for what you are because he or she depends on the output of your efforts.

As you can see the social influence and the organizational culture are so intertwined that you need to be aware of both to be able to build high-performance teams. If you get the organizational culture right from the beginning, it will work to your advantage in shaping even individuals who may not be at the top of their game when they come.

If you get the culture wrong or allow it to slide into mediocrity it will work against you and not only it pushes out the best performers who won’t like to be identified with it but also any high performing employee you may hire will eventually either self-select themselves out or succumb to the social influence and become mediocre like the rest.


What are your thoughts on the impact of social influence on individuals in the company? Have you ever observed how a great person got assimilated into a bad culture and become average like the rest? And what about the other way around? Do you know someone with bad attitude who, once moved to a great positive culture, suddenly changed and flourished?

Photo: qimono /

Categories: Leadership, Performance

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1 reply


  1. Why Your Leadership Development Model Doesn’t Work – The Geeky Leader

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