Lowering the bar

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By Tony Samson

BEING UNDERESTIMATED, even to the point of being dismissed with contempt, can be an advantage. The key to being rated well does not entail working longer hours, but just exceeding expectations. This can entail pushing the starting line forward, or moving the finish line back, or both. The race belongs to the one with a shorter track to run.

Golfers win games against more skilled competitors by having higher handicaps to put them ahead before even taking the first stroke. It’s a built-in boost for the final score.

The best guarantee of success then is managing expectations. Here are ways to lower the bar and exceed anticipated performance.

Bring down your targets. Anyone rated against budget targets understands that the higher the numbers, the lower the chances of a bonus. Instead of striving to be a great president, for example, declare you merely want to be a good one. Low hanging fruits are easier to pluck. Don’t bonsai trees also bear fruit?

Emphasize problems. Only, you should call them challenges. Still, having too long a list of obstacles can make the boss wonder if you’re the right person for the job when all you see are negatives. Don’t overdo it. A few challenges give you a job to do. After all, a situation that presents no hurdles to clear may lead to a conclusion that nothing is broken, so why bring in a fixer? Not mentioning problems makes your predecessor look good. Later problems can only be attributed to… guess who?

Express objectives in broad terms. Specific goals with numbers and quantified “deliverables” are always more difficult to achieve. Instead of a specific goal for the budget deficit, it’s better to talk of austerity measures and narrowing the gap. Give a faraway year when it breaks even. Instead of a target exchange rate, just aim for a narrower band of unpredictability.

Appeal for team support. This request need not be couched as powerlessness (the whole industry is struggling). Give credit for victory to the team, without mentioning specific names — You put me here, you help me succeed. This puts some burden of participation on a broad base of people and converts many from passive critics to active defenders.

Never mention deadlines. To promise solving the garbage problem in two weeks can guarantee failure. Afterwards, even finding a suitable dumping area and clearing the streets of flies in even 16 days will be seen as failure. It’s best to announce an event like a garbage summit (versus a summit of garbage) to put an action program in place.

Change the parameters. Zip through EDSA’s busiest strip on a working day from in 15 minutes? It will be possible soon. (Did I mention you need a helicopter?)

Lowering expectations does not exhort crowds to a frenzy. It tends to disappoint. (What a boring speech.) People are looking for miracle workers and visionaries whose rhetoric lifts their pedestrian spirits. Orators garner the loudest applause one day and invite brickbats and disenchantment a month after.

More than anything else, the cynicism over traditional politicians has to do with their penchant for over-promising and under-delivering. They are doomed by speech writers who go for eradication of poverty and prosperity for all.

Still, lowering the bar on civility, for instance with the routine use of invectives in public speeches and the call for the demise of enemies, can invite a chorus of approbation when the speaker sticks to the speech. Hey, no cuss words this time — what a fine speech!

In the climb to power, however, lowering expectations is the first casualty. How can the quiet and diffident ones with modest goals even be in the list for promotions? Anyone who goes around lowering expectations is tagged a loser.

Still, modesty is such a rare corporate virtue that it is unexpected. Not being expected to do a good job provides an advantage. Then, even the smallest achievements invite a perception of performance. (He only lost a billion pesos this year.)

And yet, when applying for a high-paying job, lack of lofty ambitions at the start can invite rejection. Once the job is landed, the lowering of the bar can start — I didn’t realize the problems were this severe and unattended for decades.

Then, when the doubt sets in (did we hire a dud?) it will be a little too late… with three more years on the contract.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.