Blog: Everyone must be exceptional

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Followed through to their logical conclusions, the shared assumptions underlying these two scenarios (that every role should be filled with an over-achieving, enthusiastic, top performer) would have major implications for our organizations and the societies they exist within, and for that reason they should be examined and questioned.

  • Would we be better off if average, competent employees were all replaced by motivated high achievers?
  • Should all employees have the ambition and desire to advance to the next level in their organization?
  • Do we truly expect that employees should or could maintain a perpetual state of enthusiasm and ambition for a promotion or job offer that may never materialize?
  • What would our workplaces look like if that were the case? What kind of society would we live in if this were true?

Our workplace might be filled with perpetually over-performing super-achievers, hungry to move up the ranks, who will be replaced by the most promising hi-po from the mob of brand-zealots circling like buzzards in the digisphere, striving to out-enthuse and out-last the competition in a ceaseless virtual networking performance – “Dance, monkey! Dance!”. As competent performers are replaced by great performers, and then by exceptional performers, the organization will speed towards its own ‘talent event horizon’, when its performance distribution curve will cease to exist, a mere dot floating in space…

Of course I exaggerate, but I do so intentionally because engaging in such a thought experiment can serve a useful purpose. I don’t know about you, but I think that this sounds like the most grotesque, dehumanizing future imaginable, and I think that we should question whether placing a disproportionate value on exceptional performers at the expense of ‘the big middle’ threatens to move us in its direction, even incrementally. The fact is, if we were to ‘evict’ all or even most of the “competent squatters” within our organizations, they would fall apart. And we might then find ourselves living in a Mad Max-esque dystopia…or at least a world where ‘good enough’ is never an option.

Jane Watson is a senior Human Resources practitioner based in downtown Toronto. She has more than 10 years of experience in private, non-profit and public sector organizations. Jane volunteers with the HRPA Toronto Chapter, and blogs about HR, organizational culture, and the future of work at Her views shared here are personal and are not intended to represent the views of any organization with which she is affiliated.

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