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How many times have you heard the advice, “keep your eye on the ball,” or “don’t look where you don’t want to go?” In every sport that uses a ball, it’s common knowledge that a singular point of concentration— the ball—is imperative to successfully hitting that mark.

What happens when two different balls fly over the net or the plate at the same time? Which do you aim for, or do you hit back and forth between the two, praying to hit one of them? What’s the most likely result? You guessed it: missing both.

In every organization where I have witnessed unrest, staff turnover, bad morale, lack of productivity and focus, the culprit is the same: More than one ball is being pitched.

When setting the mark or target for your people (or your kids), is there one single point to aim for, or are mixed messages filtering through the system? When you know that doing an excellent job—learning, developing new skills, improving, etc.—is what will garner recognition and advancement, that’s what you will aim for. Clear, explicit direction. A simple equation.

When any other criteria are added, what once was a simple equation becomes a complex polynomial with countless unknown variables and shifting values. The vast majority of us see how unsolvable this is, and eventually give up. What’s the point in killing yourself, doing excellent work, when it becomes obvious (watching others advance) that excellent work isn’t the goal? And trying to figure out what the goal really is, when excellence is what is being verbalized or promoted, teaches nothing but hypocrisy.

The “Best and Brightest,” tend to share this question in despair, as they “check out” emotionally, mentally, and finally physically. And the very organizations shouting “we want to attract and retain the best and brightest” are ignoring the first rule of doing so. If we look at our own families, aren’t we trying to help our children to become the best and brightest of their generation? Isn’t this the same dynamic?

We know that the best and brightest contribute excellent work.  They want to be recognized and rewarded for that work. The not-so-best or brightest cannot contribute excellent work, so unfortunately they strive to maintain other criteria as a smoke-screen. This other criteria can be anything from office politics to acquisition of status symbols.  Which demographic does your organization (or your family) cater to, protect, or nurture? Which demographic would you prefer to build your organization (or your family) with? Whatever you reward or cater to is what you will develop more. Is there one clear pitch to swing for?

Action Steps:

Although this may seem complex, the real lesson here is in simplifying things. Folks who share the virtues of working hard, being loyal, being participative and contributive, also tend to believe strongly in the virtues of justice and fairness.

1. Take a look at the message or messages that are being sent through your organizations or family, by who is advancing and who is not (and why?)

2. Is recognition strictly lip service, or does the organization have significant real material ritual and peer celebration to illustrate and reinforce its commitment to excellence of performance. In a family situation, recognition and celebration are just as important.

3. Remember that this works in reverse when folks get rewarded for all the wrong reasons! This is how people get trained to lie, cheat, or bully from childhood.

4. Do what you can to introduce and promote a Meritocracy in your organization or family. Make sure that advancement and reward are based strictly on merit. This is the simplest goal to convey, follow, or measure.

The really good news? The simplest, easiest way to run an organization coincidentally attracts and retains the best and brightest. This is a win-win strategy for any organization, from a multi-national corporation to a two person family.

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