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Insisting on High Standards

Whether you like it or not, the only way to achieve really good results in the workplace is to set high standards. They are distinctly unpopular. I was a bit flabbergasted to find that if you Google “high standards” the searches mostly make reference to nit-picking employers, rather than the need to strive for really good quality in the workplace. Micro-managing and having high standards are not the same thing at all but it seems there may be some confusion in the minds of some writers about it.

It’s perfectly reasonable for employers to have high standards – so long as the standards are achievable by competent, diligent and trained employees – and I see nothing wrong in requiring them. In the case of a number of companies (one very large telecoms company immediately comes to mind) driving up the standards a bit would make their customers a lot happier and probably save them a fortune in repairs, corrections, complaints and compensation.

In most cases, once you have set a high standard, you and your team will need to work harder than someone who does not have high standards. That is the price you pay.

Most people do a good (i.e. just enough) job because that is what is expected but having high performance standards can beat mediocrity and achieve highflying goals.

In “Good to Great”, Jim Collins’ argues that, “Good is the enemy of Great”. We are driven to change when we hit bottom or get bad results – but nothing kills the energy and drive to being better than just being “good”. We have to take personal accountability to ensure that we are always our own toughest critic and never give in to “good enough”.

The success of an organisation work is directly related to the quality of its performance and setting standards, modelling the way, is one of the fundamental principles of great leadership. Set performance standards high and don’t settle for “good enough”.

Bill Walsh was a coach for the American Football Team, the San Francisco 49ers, well-known for his demanding standards. He believed it was vital for everybody in an organisation to deliver certain standards of performance. This was more important than striving for ‘winning’. He believed that, providing people consistently delivered the standards he required, the score took care of itself. Did it work? Despite not focusing on ‘winning’, his team was hailed as a dynasty.

Walsh said: “The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on the way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.”

Some of the standards of performance that Walsh encouraged his teams to adopt were as follows.

  • Use positive language and have a positive attitude.
  • Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement.
  • Demonstrate character. Be fair and demonstrate respect for each person in the organisation and the work he or she does.

The 49ers story is just one example of the way in which setting standards, having expectations, building a culture of high performance is key to delivering long term sustainable success. Great leaders understand this and as they model the way they also help team members to understand the key results areas and what their own individual contribution is expected to be.

If you are willing to settle for “good,” things can be much easier — and you can be much nicer. But if you ever hope to achieve anything great — if you ever want to create a wonderful product or provide excellent customer service or have a great movie or magazine produced - you are going to have to establish and maintain high standards for your employees.

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