Recently, I spoke with Professor David Beatty on the Disrupt Disruption podcast. David is a globally recognized authority on board governance. Simply put, he trains top-tier executives to become even more effective board members. During our chat, he humorously yet pointedly remarked that many executives eventually settle into a state of “satisfactory underperformance.”
“Satisfactory underperformance” describes a plateau where people aren’t necessarily failing but aren’t excelling either. The concept echoes the “Peter Principle,” a term coined in 1969 by Laurence J. Peter. It posits that people rise through an organization’s ranks based on their past performance until they reach a level where they’re no longer competent. This happens because the skills that make someone effective in one role don’t always transfer to another.
There are various factors that could make this principle true or false. However, most of us can likely identify at least one manager operating at this level of “satisfactory underperformance.” It’s an unfortunate situation, affecting both those who report to such managers and those who find themselves promoted beyond their skill set.
To ensure the well-being of our companies, our teams, and ourselves, it’s imperative that we steer clear of this pitfall. The danger of settling into “satisfactory underperformance” is real, and it’s a disservice to not only ourselves but also to the organizations we serve and the teams we lead. It’s essential that we continually reassess our own performance and that of those around us, striving for more than just satisfactory results. Let’s challenge ourselves to break free from this plateau by engaging in continuous learning, seeking feedback, and applying our skills dynamically across different contexts. After all, the cost of complacency can be far greater than we might imagine.
So the next time you find yourself or someone else coasting, remember: good enough rarely is. Let’s aim higher.