With Martin G. Moore

Episode #299

Setting a Higher Standard: Everyone benefits

Occasionally, I throw in a myth busting episode to challenge conventional leadership wisdom. This is my way of helping you to adopt the essential mindset of a truly successful leader.

One of the broadly accepted leadership myths is that any focus on individual performance detracts from the needs, wants, and (dare I say it) entitlements of your people. This is complete bullsh!t…

Conventional wisdom encourages us to let people work to their own capability and capacity, and not put any performance pressure on them… but this is a recipe for disaster, in so many ways!

Not only is it bad for the team and the organization — it’s also bad for the individuals who are struggling to perform!

In this episode, I put forward the case for setting a higher standard — not just to achieve better results, but also to do the very best you can to help the people who work for you! I look at some unlikely examples, from the decline in educational standards in the US, to the fall of communist Russia.

Everyone benefits from higher standards!

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Episode #299 Setting a Higher Standard: Everyone benefits


For those of you listen to my podcast regularly, you’ll know that I’m all about performance. My biggest bugbear with the current wave of conventional leadership wisdom is the focus on noble attributes and virtues. We seem to have lost touch with the primary function of leadership, which is to deliver value.

Young leaders coming through could be forgiven for thinking that their job is to do whatever it takes to keep their people happy so that they’ll be motivated to perform.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A leader’s job is to get results. This is why I occasionally throw in a myth busting episode to challenge this conventional wisdom, and help you to adopt the mindset that you need to be a truly successful leader.

One of the broadly accepted leadership myths is that any focus on individual performance detracts from the needs, wants, and (dare I say it) the entitlements of your people. This is complete bullsh!t. We’re encouraged to let people work to their own capability and capacity and not put any performance pressure on them – a recipe for disaster in so many ways! Not only is it bad for the team and the organization, it’s also bad for your under-performing individuals.

In this episode, I tell you why setting a high standard is essential, not just to achieve results, but also to do the very best you can to help the people who work for you – and they’ll be a lot happier if you do.

I start with a look at a recent article on the impact of declining standards in American high schools, and of course the unintended consequences of some well-intentioned actions. I then take a look at why competition makes us stronger, and I finish with a rationale that I hope is going to convince you to set a higher standard for your team, to everyone’s benefit.


I love going on a good myth busting expedition. One of my earliest episodes exposed the happy workers are productive workers myth. Since then, I’ve put out a few crackers and I’ve got to say my favorites over the last couple of years for blowing apart the myths we tend to believe dealt with subjects like:

I’ve long held the view that stretching and challenging people is incredibly beneficial for them, individually. You may have heard me say before that the older I get, the less certain I am about practically everything… but there’s one thing I’m pretty sure about:

The only thing that truly builds self-esteem is achieving difficult things. Period.

Just stop for a minute and think about this from your perspective. When was the last time that you felt absolutely unstoppable? Invincible? Bulletproof?

I’ll guarantee you that it was just after you did something that was so difficult that you thought you couldn’t do it. Or maybe it was something that scared you, or something that was completely outside your comfort zone.

Leaders who set a high standard for performance get great results from their teams, of course. They also know how to tap into the discretionary effort that only comes from people with extremely high levels of confidence and self-esteem.

I hear a lot of leaders bemoaning the younger generations entering the workforce. They’re often stereotyped as lazy and lacking resilience, wanting everything to be handed to them on a silver platter, while at the same time complaining about how they haven’t got as good a deal as their parents did, and that they’ve somehow inherited a natural disadvantage.

I have to say that, if any of this is true, it would only be because that’s the way we’ve treated them. When you try to protect people and lower your expectations about their standard of performance well, sure, you can make them feel better – but that’s only going to work in the short term.

You are at the same time robbing them of their opportunity to improve, to thrive, and to build their confidence and self-esteem.

For every well-meaning attempt to make things easier for people, there are unintended consequences that can’t be avoided. In virtually every leadership role that I ever held, going back as far as the 1980s, my instinct was to demand a high level of performance from everyone on the team. These days, I get the opportunity to muse on this quite often, because many interviewers ask me what I think I would be like to work for.

I don’t need to speculate on this one because for me, it’s been incredibly clear for decades. If you want to be your best, to stretch, grow and achieve exceptional results, then you’ll struggle to find a better boss than me. But if you just want to cruise along and have an easy time at work, then I would be your worst nightmare.

… because I won’t let you be mediocre.


The last bastion of credible journalism, The Economist, recently published an article about the falling standards in American high schools. Although that won’t come as a great shock to most of us, there was one finding that caught my eye: by lowering the standards, the people who are hurt the most are the very ones that the policies are trying to help. When it comes to unintended consequences, this one takes the cake!

I tend to trust the reported findings in The Economist because the publication employs analytics teams to scrutinize the studies they cover, looking for holes and inconsistencies… so I guess they are the real MythBusters.

In this particular case, the findings go something like this:

  • Graduation rates in some high schools have shown a remarkable surge in the last 15 years, but at the same time, student competency levels (as measured by objective testing instruments like the SATs) have nosedived.

  • For example, the graduation rates in one Massachusetts high school rose from 50% to 94% between 2007 and 2022.

  • At the same time, their SAT scores deteriorated by 15%

  • Their Math and English proficiency also slumped. The pass rate on advanced placement exams in that school fell to 12% compared to a national average of 60%.

And, now that SAT results are no longer a requirement for college admission, the rate of students taking the test has declined from almost 80% to just under 70%. This probably isn’t due to a decline in the number of high achievers taking the test. It’s more likely to be low achieving students opting out. So, the problem is likely to be even greater than the data show.

And I suspect this is fairly representative of most other developed countries. In Australia, for example, the performance decline in standardized testing shows a similar trend. The most recent NAPLAN testing shows that one in three students is not meeting the expected standard for their grade.

Clearly, schools are lowering academic standards in order to allow more students to graduate. There are many possible causes for this trend

  1. A 2001 study found that only one in four students thought their teachers had high expectations of them… For me, this is incredibly disturbing.

  2. Grading has become more lax. An older study showed that, in 1960 only 15% of American students achieved an A grade. But by 2001, that had increased to 45% of students. That’s a three-fold increase. This dumbs down differentiation, and it compresses the grades together so that the gap between the high achievers and the middle of the pack shrinks. This devalues the hard work and superior performance of the best and brightest.

  3. None of this has been improved by the 2001 “No Child Left Behind” legislation, which was designed with the best intention to increase the focus on disadvantaged students. But the unintended consequences of this were significant. Schools faced sanctions (or even closure) if they didn’t hit their targets. And what’s the easiest way to make the numbers? To lower the standard, of course. What gets measured gets managed, and what gets rewarded gets done, right?

  4. I can’t also help but think the expectations parents place on teachers to give their child a high grade pushes many educators to follow the path of least resistance. It’s a lot easier to give Johnny an A than it is to justify to Johnny’s parents why he only merits a C.

What’s the outcome of all this?

We’re sending these kids into the world woefully under prepared for what they’re going to face in their careers. There are no participation trophies in business, just the outcomes you earn through your effort, focus, and decisions.

Our kids have been over indulged by being told that unsatisfactory performance is good enough, and they’ve been given a false sense of what might be required to succeed once they emerge from the cloistered environment of high school.

Many clearly haven’t experienced that feeling of being stretched to exceed the expectations that they place on themselves.

So why isn’t it beneficial to poor performing students to give them an academic ‘leg-up’? A working paper study from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University found that students with low test scores showed up to class less often and put in less effort, while the attendance of high-scoring students didn’t change. So although this policy led to higher graduation rates, it also contributed to a wider gap in GPAs and standardized test scores between high- and low-achieving students.

In short, the top kids are going to be okay, no matter what… but the kids who are struggling will find that struggle even harder.


I observed this over a lot of years, and there’s no way around this immutable law of nature: competition makes us stronger. It’s good for everyone.

Many people labor under the misapprehension that the two concepts of:

  1. Fierce competition, and

  2. Nurturing people

… are mutually exclusive. But in my experience, they are complementary principles.

Trying to create a less competitive, more nurturing world is good in theory. So is communism. But it doesn’t actually stack up in practice no matter how you try to spin it.

When I was in Houston, TX recently, a good friend of mine took me on a tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center facility (and a massive shout-out to Grady Harrison and my other HBS colleagues who I caught up with on that trip).

For me, the most interesting part of the NASA tour wasn’t NASA itself. It was a stop that Grady took me to at a grocery store in a nearby strip mall.

In 1989, when the then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin was visiting the US, his party made a stop at this same grocery store. As he looked at the quality and choice of the items in the store, Yeltsin told his entourage that if the Russian people knew what was available to the average American, there would be a revolution. He said, “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev has this.”

Yeltsin initially thought that the store might’ve even been staged as a propaganda measure by the US officials who were chaperoning him. Little did he know that this was a typical grocery store, one of hundreds of thousands of similar stores all over the US. He couldn’t believe the contrast between this, and what life was like in Soviet Russia.

His experience at this humble Randall’s supermarket in Clear Lake, TX is considered to be a pivotal moment in the dismantling of communism in the USSR.

But of course, this isn’t about communism or capitalism – it’s about setting standards and incentives for performance. The incentive to capture customer dollars in a competitive market forces companies to be better.

The affordability and availability of all types of products has rapidly improved during our lifetimes, due to the massive increases in productivity and innovation. Without competition, there is no incentive to improve. There’s just mediocrity. And we can see this in every market that supports weak competition.

Australia, for example, is a very large country with a relatively small population. In fact, it has one of the lowest population densities of any country in the world. Hey, we’re right up there with Iceland, Greenland and Mongolia. In Australia, there are less than eight people per square mile. The population density in the US is over 10 times this, with more than 90 people per square mile. And the UK, almost a hundred times greater, with 720 people per square mile. This massively affects the economics of competition.

A larger, more concentrated market opens the door for greater competition. Australia, on the other hand, lends itself to natural duopolies and oligopolies, particularly in capital intensive industries like rail, electricity transmission, airlines, and telecommunications infrastructure.

There are even some industries that are designated as natural monopolies. Prices in these industries are controlled by a government appointed regulator rather than being forged by competitive forces. And I can tell you from experience, the performance of these types of businesses is woefully inferior to competitive businesses.

Competition forces us to be better. It draws out our inner strength and resilience. It pushes us to be more creative about how we do things. It stimulates the innovation that delivers step changes in productivity and performance.

Competing in a free market forces companies to constantly seek a higher standard. And the companies that can’t rise to the standard their competitors set? Well, they eventually fall by the wayside.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. And, as Boris Yeltsin was able to observe firsthand, the result of high standards, applied over many decades, delivered a quality of life that was unfathomable in his universe of force-fit equality.


So, all this is fun and interesting… but how does it apply to you, as a leader? You are going to face the same decisions every day that face the teachers who are trying to create a favorable environment for their struggling students in American high schools.

Do you make exceptions to the standard to ensure that there’s a place for everyone? Do you give them soft performance ratings so that they feel good about themselves, and you get to avoid the conflict of having to explain why they haven’t received a higher rating? You are not doing them any favors.

Let’s have a look at the dynamics of low or flexible standards:

1. The impact on team culture

When you lower the standard for any individual, in your mind you may think you are just making an exception, so as to be kind to them. You may even tell yourself that you aren’t actually lowering the overall standard.

But this isn’t how things work.

The standard of your team is not set by your strongest performer. It’s set by your weakest performer. Everyone else looks at that person and thinks to themselves, “Oh, I get it… that’s the standard, is it!? So, if I perform like that, I still get paid and I still get to come back on Monday. Based on that, I can perform at, I don’t know, 40% of my capacity and I’m going to be fine.”

And that is where your team performance level goes.

2. The impact on your high performers

High performers aren’t going to be happy working in a mediocre team. For a start, they don’t want to be carrying the burden for their underperforming peers. Being rewarded for their extra effort and performance by having to cover for those people who aren’t producing.

They also simply don’t want to work for a weak leader who isn’t serious about performance. Rather than seeing this as a chance to help their weaker team members, they’re more likely going to choose to leave to find a team where performance is valued.

3. The impact on your poor performers

Not only do your poor performers become weaker, but at the same time they develop a false sense of security. Over time, they’ll begin to feel as though their effort and performance is sufficient, when that’s absolutely not the case. Eventually they’re going to be blindsided when either they aren’t promoted or they’re let go when the downsizing rounds turn up.

And they’ll think, “Why me?

What happens if they want to move to another job? They will be way behind those people who are competing for the same jobs who have developed, grown, and stretched in their previous roles.

When they emerge from the warm complacency of your protection, they’ll find themselves completely ill-equipped to deal with a harsher reality in a team or company that sets a higher standard. They’ll be more likely to sink than they will to swim.

4. The impact on team performance

With a low standard, your team simply can’t perform. And you need to think of this in the context of a larger-scale competitive environment.

Underperforming teams make for underperforming companies… underperforming companies produce poor shareholder returns… shareholders flee… investment capital dries up. This story can only end one way.


The point of this episode is (and I want you to really take this to heart):

As a leader, you have to preserve a high standard, no matter what.

Like it or not, we live in a competitive world, and if we ignore the invisible force of competition, all our people are going to be worse off as a result. What might seem like compassion on the surface is actually quite cruel.

Your objective as a leader shouldn’t be to coddle and protect your people. It should be to make them strong and independent, capable and confident. The only way to achieve this is to set a high standard, and then spend every waking hour trying to work out how to help your people lift to meet that standard.

If you can do that, you’ll provide the best possible outcomes for those who need your help the most.



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