HR Insights, Talent Management

Is Anybody Out There in Our Workforce Average Anymore?

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Last weekend, The New York Times published an article with an intriguing premise that seems to pop up in different forms on occasion here at TLNT: that the notion of being “average” or “ordinary” has become derogatory.

It’s similar to the premise that Derek Irvine and others have made here about how you need “B” players in your organization because “these are the people who grind out the work that makes it possible for your stars to shine.”

The NYT article digs into the thinking that the Baby Boomer generation (and those that followed them) have been taught that everyone needs to be special even if they really aren’t so much so. And, it raises the question: why is it a problem if we’re just average?

Is there room to be average?

Author Alina Tugend asks:

I wonder if there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager — or adult — who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire.

We hold so dearly onto the idea that we should all aspire to being remarkable that when David McCullough Jr., an English teacher, told graduating seniors at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts recently, “You are not special. You are not exceptional,” the speech went viral (the video is below).

“In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another — which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement,” he told the students and parents. “We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.”

I didn’t see The New York Times story when it first came out last weekend, but Author Tugend followed it up today with a number of comments from readers who think it’s OK to be average.

Readers embrace being average

As one reader from North Carolina told her:

I often have wondered how the world can be in such a mess with all of the “extraordinary” people we read about in leadership positions. As you suggest, perhaps they were climbing their mountains for the wrong reasons.”

And another one wrote her with a quote from Albert Einstein that seems incredibly appropriate:

Just read the article and it reminded me of this:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” — Albert Einstein”

We need “B” players on the job, too

What fascinates me is how different so many of these people responding to these New York Times‘ articles sound than the ones who wrote to us here at TLNT about why the workplace needs “B” players, and why non-superstar “role” players are what helps to make an organization go.  Judging by the comments on the articles when we published them here, a number of people have a problem with the notion that average “B” players are actually a good thing.

We’re not going to solve all of that today, but it stands to reason that not everyone can be exceptional and that the world needs to function well for the average as well as for those we hold up as great.

“B” players? We need them, and it’s not a pejorative to say we have them and that they’re valuable in their own right — just like it is not a slur to call someone ordinary. We need everyone to make this world function, and today is a good day to think, reflect, and remember that.

John Hollon is Vice President for Editorial of TLNT.com, and the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices. Contact him at john@tlnt.com, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/johnhollon.
  • Howard Risher

    I doubt if many in HR would disagree with these comments — but we allow badly inflated performance ratings to continue.  It may be that GE and other companies tried to deal with the problem but a forced distribution is not a true fix — as GE learned.

  • http://twitter.com/MaxBeggelman Max Beggelman

    The problem with being “just average” is that everybody wants the best they can get. If you’re hiring for a job, are you going to pick the best applicant for the job, or the most average applicant? If you’ve got a limited number of college admission slots or scholarships to give out, are you going to give them to the best applicants or the most average applicants? 

    We’ve been taught by society that we need to be the best, because the best are the only ones who get the best opportunities to succeed; everyone else has to settle for the horrible jobs and second-rate colleges that the best turned down. It’s nice to talk about how valuable the average people are, but it’s not going to change anything unless the people who matter are willing to change the systems that incentivize people to treat childhood like an 18-year-long resume-stacking exercise.