To the Lowest Common Denominator

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The Dangers of Managing to the Lowest Common Denominator. Managing to the lowest common denominator is a management strategy that is used to address issues with employees who are not performing or are riding the edge of acceptability. The strategy involves instituting a series of rules, regulations and management processes that are designed to control and correct the behaviour of these employees. This approach is often used in situations where employees are disengaged, not managed properly, or lack feedback on a regular basis.

The idea behind this strategy is that by implementing rules and regulations, managers can create a more controlled and productive work environment. However, the problem with this approach is that the rules and regulations are typically applied to all employees, regardless of their level of performance or engagement. This means that even high-performing employees will be subject to the same rules and regulations as low-performing employees.

I can recall an incident where my son, who was seven years old at the time, was given a detention for stepping in a puddle at school. I was upset and met with the principal to discuss their strict policies. I argued that managing to the lowest common denominator, as the school was doing, was detrimental to the development of children. This approach does not allow for individual learning experiences and stunts personal growth. My child should be able to learn from his choices and not be held back by restrictive rules that are meant to control the behaviour of the entire group. The school eventually withdrew the detention. However, my son still remembers that experience and how at such a young age this style of management felt so very wrong to him. 

Within the workplace, managing to the lowest common denominator can lead to a number of negative consequences since this approach does not address the root of the problem, which is typically poor management and lack of feedback.

Why Managing to the Lowest Common Denominator is Bad for Business

Increased Turnover of Top Performing Employees

One of the major consequences of managing to the lowest common denominator is the loss of high-performing employees. These employees are motivated by a healthy and productive work environment where they can thrive and push themselves to be better. They hold themselves accountable, set high goals, and continuously measure their performance. They bring innovation, accountability, and progressiveness to the workplace. When they are subjected to the same low standards as the underperforming employees, their motivation and morale decreases, leading them to feel stifled, embittered, and discouraged. In search of a better work environment that values and develops their unique abilities, they may leave the company, resulting in increased turnover. This is detrimental to the business as it loses the valuable contributions and innovative ideas that these employees bring to the table.

Decreased Teamwork and Cross-Functional Collaboration

The formation of silos in an organisation is a result of departments prioritising their own goals above the success of the company as a whole. When leadership manages to the lowest common denominator, this issue becomes even more pronounced. By failing to address underperforming individuals directly and instead allowing their low performance to be absorbed into the group, it perpetuates subpar performance. This leads lower performers to become more secretive and protective of their work, developing a lack of trust amongst the group and further exacerbating the divide between departments. Meanwhile, the underperforming individuals are allowed to carry on with no expectation of being held personally accountable for their subpar performance as well as the need to take ownership and make necessary improvements. This creates an unhealthy and unproductive work environment that can harm the success of the organisation as a whole.

Slows Company Innovation and Progress

Another reason that managing to the lowest common denominator is bad for business is that it can lead to a lack in company innovation and progress. When the focus is placed on meeting the needs of the least capable teammates, there may be less time, energy and effort available to invest in progressing the company forward. This can stifle creativity and put the organisation in a position where it cannot take advantage of new opportunities or adapt adequately to a quickly changing market. When a business is not able to bring the best out of its employees, it may struggle to keep up with competitors who are able to do so, typically leading a decline in market share and profits.

Decrease In Product Quality and Customer Satisfaction 

Managing to the lowest common denominator may result in a significant decrease in product quality and customer satisfaction. When a company fails to fully use the skills and expertise of its employees, it struggles to produce high-quality products and services. The lack of accountability and ownership among employees can lead to a culture of subpar performance and poor execution, which can spread throughout the organisation. The result often is less than desired outcomes, declining engagement, and ultimately, customer dissatisfaction. Poorly produced products and services can severely harm the reputation and success of a business, as customers are likely to choose competitors that offer higher quality products and better experiences. Thus, it is important for organisations to avoid the perceived ease of managing to the lowest common denominator and instead strive to create a culture of high standards, ownership, and accountability, which are key to future organisational success. 

Leads To A Toxic Work Culture

Additionally, implementing rules and regulations that apply to all employees, regardless of their level of performance often creates a toxic work culture. Resentment among high-performing employees can begin to increase and often leads to a blame culture across the company. Employees will begin to feel as though they cannot trust their team members to perform at the right level and growing hostilities will continue to develop if this type of environment is not properly addressed.

What Can Be Done

An alternate management method is managing to the highest individual potential. This is a more holistic approach that prioritises personal growth, development and success for each employee. This method involves creating an environment where employees are encouraged to reach their full potential. Within this approach, personalised learning plans, constructive feedback, opportunities for self-discovery and recognition of success are key components. Rather than limiting employees to lower standards, this approach empowers high achievers to reach their full potential, while still respecting the differences of all employees. It also raises the bar for lower performing employees by holding them personally accountable and challenging them to produce better quality work and ultimately, to produce better outcomes for the company. 

Moreover, this approach challenges leaders to bring out the best in themselves and to think critically and individually about what works best for each employee, instead of resorting to blanket policies. Employees that exhibit innovation, good decision making, and take a proactive approach to their work should be encouraged to grow further and be not held back by those with lower standards. Managing to the highest individual potential is a more effective and rewarding way to manage.

Adopting a management approach that caters to the lowest common denominator may appear as an inclusive and equitable strategy. However, it can result in adverse effects for the business. Instead of focusing on the lowest-skilled employees, it’s crucial for businesses to encourage motivation and involvement among all workers and create an environment that nurtures innovation and growth. Such an approach will enhance the company’s competitiveness, boost customer satisfaction, and ultimately lead to sustained success.

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Diana Zaya
Diana is the Vice President of Sales & Marketing and one of the founding team members of Relitix, a data analytics company specialising in the use of data science applications within the residential real estate industry. Diana began her career working as a residential Real Estate Agent and quickly grew to being a recognised and celebrated up-and-comer in the industry. During this time, she found a passion for helping real estate agents that were struggling and developed and led agent coaching programs. Her unique experience in working with and interpreting real estate data makes her a sought-after resource for many of the nation’s largest and most respected real estate brokerages. Diana has also served on many boards and committees, most recently as Board Chair for Home of the Sparrow, which seeks to empower homeless women to move from homelessness to self-sufficiency.