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Set the bar high and more people will reach it

Tim Mcguire United Feature Syndicate

I recently taught a college course, and a valuable lesson about writing and work was reinforced. One student wrote particularly fine papers. The writing flowed, the ideas were cogent and her arguments were forceful.

Then I realized she had an unfair advantage. She knew the material! More than any other student, this young woman had obviously read it carefully, absorbed it and thought carefully about applying it. The study time she invested paid off in high performance.

Knowledge distinguishes good writers. No matter how beautifully someone can put words together, their efforts will be ineffective if they don’t have something important to say. That content usually comes as a result of hard work, including meticulous fact-gathering and careful reflection.

The lesson also applies to people in the workplace. The top performers are going to be the people who prepare carefully, get the best training, stay up-to-date on the best practices in their field and work hard.

A lot of workers these days simply do not want to invest all it takes to excel. They become content with mediocre work and mediocre effort and then they are shocked when they get mediocre rewards. Many of those people want to believe that Sally and Jack get ahead because they are the boss’s pets. Too many people do not take into consideration the skills, dedication and high performance Sally and Jack bring to their jobs.

I remember early in my reporting career a woman was called into the boss’s office to discuss her work. When she came out of the office she hissed at me, “Curvebreaker!” When compared to mine, her work output apparently did not measure up, but she did not view it as her problem. It was mine because I was doing too much! Over the years I have found that was not an unusual circumstance. People often look out rather than inward.

Workers need to set a high standard for themselves and meet it. It doesn’t matter what others are doing, it matters that you are performing the best you can with maximum effort. Just like my student, workers need to know their jobs completely and know how to perform them with maximum effectiveness.

But there’s a trick for the supervisor here, too. The bar for the entire workplace must be set high. The outstanding performers need to be recognized, rewarded and encouraged to stretch themselves. Human nature demands that the outstanding performers realize that their hard work is rewarded more than others. My student was obviously proud of the A’s she earned, but if she thought I was giving A’s to every student no matter how hard they worked, she would be deflated, discouraged and stop investing the effort. Why should she work hard when she could still get the same rewards with less heavy lifting?

Another mistake that supervisors frequently make is when they get so consumed by bad to mediocre performers that they ignore their best people. Affirmation of outstanding performers is essential, and yet in so many workplaces the best performers are taken for granted. Few things will dampen the spirit of outstanding performers more than knowing that lesser performance will net more attention, even if it’s negative attention.

Workplaces would be better if employees and supervisors recognized a delicate ethical contract must be negotiated every day between the top performers and leadership. The best work must net the best rewards.

Tip for your search: Many people think they have mastered their jobs, but few have. Take some time this week to figure out what part of your performance could be pushed to the next level. Do some reading or seek some additional training so you can achieve a whole new sense of accomplishment. Being better prepared will be its own reward.

Resource for your search: “First Things First” by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill, (Free Press, 1996)

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