Who Should Set Your Standards?


Once again, Seth Godin’s daily post has forced me to think more clearly about the way I view certain issues.

Today’s post by Seth was about parents not setting high enough standards for their children, or bosses not setting high enough standards for their employees. The result is (potentially) out of control children or employees producing mediocre work.

While there may be some similarities between setting standards for children and setting standards for employees, I think there are enough differences that the two can’t really be lumped together. How you set standards for someone who has not yet reached the age of reason is quite different than how you set standards for someone that is gainfully employed.

For this discussion, I just want to focus on the issue of setting standards for employees.

Seth states in his post, “… the sooner you find a boss who pushes you right to the edge of your ability to be excellent, the better.”

While there is no denying that some managers may be capable of motivating some of their employees to higher levels of performance, I think the most important part of the equation is not what the manager is doing to motivate you, but what the employee is doing to motivate himself.

Seth even notes this at the end when he references a blog post he wrote over four years ago. That post indicated that perhaps the most essential thing for an employee (or freelancer or entrepreneur) to learn was about the importance of managing yourself.

I had a guest speaker in my class today, a former student who is a senior manager at one of the Big 4 public accounting firms. His presentation was on performance evaluation, and his parting words of advice to my students was to “Own Your Career”, to take personal responsibility for your success and not rely on someone else to manage your career.

I couldn’t agree more with my former student, or with Seth’s post from four years ago, which is why I really can’t agree with the basic message of today’s post by Seth.

To paraphrase JFK, employees should not be asking what their manager can do for them, but what they can do for themselves.

If you are producing mediocre work, I don’t think it’s right to blame the manager because he or she did not set the standards high enough. If you did mediocre work, it’s because you didn’t set the bar high enough for yourself. How about taking some personal responsibility and personal pride in wanting to do outstanding work not because your boss is demanding it, but because that is the standard you set for yourself?

Standards are often used as a way to evaluate an employee’s performance at the end of the year, so that employees can then be rated and ranked.

However, there seems to be a movement by some companies to stop using ratings and rankings when they evaluate employees. In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Ritchie, a Microsoft human-resources executive who goes by “J,” said the technology company’s practice of rating and ranking employees discouraged risk-taking and collaboration; since discontinuing the practice in late 2013, teamwork is up, he said.

I had mentioned a similar idea in a previous post where I talked about how at IBM the managers set standards for the sales employees so that the majority of them would achieve the goal. Such an approach does not seem to be in line with Seth’s notion of finding a manager that pushes you to the edge of your ability. Otherwise, 70-80% of the employees would not likely be hitting the standard, as they did at IBM.

To me, it seems to come down to intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, and on this, the research seems to be fairly consistent. That if you want to get the highest performance out of your employees, you need to create an environment where employees are given the freedom to do work that matters. Such an environment creates an employee who is self-motivated, and doesn’t need a manager to set standards of performance; in such an environment the employee’s standards for himself would likely be higher anyway.

And to be clear, I am not promoting the setting of low standards. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. I certainly favor setting high standards, it’s just that I should be the one setting such standards for myself, and not relying on someone else to do so.

Now as far as setting standards for children, I vaguely recall that candy always seemed to be the most effective way to get our kids to behave the way we wanted. :)

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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