Zero Tolerance for Mediocrity

Talk to any MBA student and he or she will tell you that there are two styles of management; Theory X and Theory Y. Under Theory X management, it is assumed that people are naturally lazy and irresponsible and further that if brains were gunpowder, the average employee couldn’t blow his nose. Theory Y managers seek open communications and invites 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 have empathy for the employee, while expecting them to perform to the best of their abilities and you never let them settle for less. It says that the manager (or the work team itself) sets the expectations and passes them on in such a way that people know the expectations are not arbitrary or debatable but not punitive either.

Tom Peters & Robert Waterman in their landmark book, In Search of Excellence found that; “The excellent companies are marked by very strong cultures…so strong that you either buy into their norms or you get out. There is no halfway house.” When you join the team, you understand that you have to live up to these expectations or you are not a part of the team.

Retailing superstar Nordstrom’s is a great example of Zero Tolerance. People who work there, face very high expectations (some don’t make it) and are given many responsibilities. There are only two employee rules; #1. Use your own best judgement. #2. If you follow rule #1 no other rules are necessary.

The U.S. Marines are a Zero Tolerance outfit. Expectations are high, discipline is unyielding and the pressure to perform is legendary. But don’t try to take that “Semper Phi” bumper sticker off of the car of a marine. Marines are a proud and motivated lot because they have been a part of a tough and unyielding, worthwhile organization that expects and gets the best out of it’s people. They have learned the truth about teamwork and individual responsibility and passed the test of Zero Tolerance for Mediocrity.

You can lead you people into excellence and self-pride by coaching them to understand Zero Tolerance is the only thing that is acceptable and if you are going to be on this team…you will excel.

Rules to Remember

#1 You can never not lead!

The beleaguered manager says, “I tell the employees to honor our customers. ‘They write your paycheck’ I tell them that, ‘ The Customer is # 1’ but we are still losing market share and I know it’s because of poor service habits.” Denial is more than just a river in Egypt.

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

Good intentions are no substitute for positive results. I remember many years ago I was guilty of whining about the lack of sales productivity on my team of sales reps. George Morgan, our vice president of sales looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Rick, you’ll be surprised how good they will get once their manager gets good!”

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

As a manager, you can never not lead. You can’t nail Jello to a wall. You can’t find a sunrise by walking west and you can never not lead. Someone once said, “If you keep doing what you have always done, you’ll keep getting what you have always gotten.”

#2 Do unto your employees as you would have them do unto your customers.

Who are the most important people to walk through the doors of your business each day? Customers, right? Wrong!

We learned a long time ago while doing sales training and consulting, that the lowest paid employee on the staff can run off more business that the highest paid salesperson can bring in. Please recognize that how we treat our people, will be directly reflected in their attitude toward our customers. It’s human nature.

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

Give clear direction and let people know your expectations are not arbitrary, not punitive and not debatable.

Once your staff understands the rules, get them involved in the decisions about those rules. Let them know it is OK to question the rules and they will make a very positive impact in the organization. As a salesman told me one time, “Anybody can walk on water if they know where all of 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 you will 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 customers settle for your past reputation or accomplishments? The greatest enemy of excellence is ‘good’ and once you settle for ‘good’, you will never see excellence again.

A manager once told me that an uncompromising attitude like “never settling” is unreasonable. My question is, “Are your customers reasonable?” If not then perhaps it is time to get unreasonable.

Is the unreasonable possible? If you have never stretched your staff to discover what is “unreasonable,” you don’t know what your potential really is. Have unreasonable expectations. Walk around assuming that 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 under utilized employee. Typically, employees in Japanese electronics industry submit 54 suggestions per employee. For 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 continue to tell us “Nobody listens so why even try?” We can’t 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 into the future of the organization.

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

Finally, we need to understand that the impact of Zero Tolerance for Mediocrity stretches far beyond the doors of our businesses. It reaches into the very fabric of our country since the only standard of performance that can sustain a free society is excellence.


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