When mediocrity rules

One of the core reasons of institutional decline in Pakistan is the pervasive culture of mediocrity and sycophancy


M Zeb Khan July 24, 2021
The writer is a PhD in Administrative Sciences and associated with SZABIST, Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

As an individual, one can create one’s own fascinating world and can live there without inflicting harm on others. But this luxury is not available to countries and organisations. They have to have visions, strong cultures, and competent leaders to excel in what they do so they can thrive and prove useful for those related to them. Mediocrity at any level in collective entities (states and organizations) eats them from within like termites and brings them down quite quietly.

Mediocrity manifests itself in many different ways. In politics, monarchy and dictatorship breed mediocrity by overvaluing loyalty over competence. The feeling of insecurity of a king/dictator cannot afford to embrace dissenting voices and innovative ideas. Loyalty to the person and the tried and tested traditions is what is rewarded with tangible and intangible favours.

Democracy, on the other hand, weeds out mediocrity over time. While it too is prone to transient events and manipulation by power elites, it has a built-in self-correcting mechanism which usually brings up talent through competition. One has to prove to the electorate that one can deliver on promises of better public service to be elected/re-elected for the given slot. Accountability, at different times and in different forms, acts as a moral check on individuals’ temptation to abuse power.

The problem of mediocrity is even more pronounced in organisations, particularly in developing countries. Even at the hiring stage of employees, the sitting executives would make every effort to bring in individuals who are perceived to be less qualified and hence less potentially threatening to them. Even if someone, by luck or unmatched qualifications, breaks into the system, he/she would soon prematurely quit after having found himself surrounded by sycophants and jealous people all around.

One of the core reasons of institutional decline in Pakistan is the pervasive culture of mediocrity and sycophancy. To get promoted and rewarded, one has to make frequent visits to the boss’s office (and preferably to his house) with some precious gifts besides touting his personality and performance. Both the boss and subordinate enter into a win-win agreement with ‘you scratch my back and I will yours’.

In one of the universities where I worked for a few years, I found three groups with different visions, strategies, and work ethics. For the sake of sense making, I labelled them 3 Ds (Dominant, Dissident, and Dormant groups) on the basis of their role in the organisation and how they interacted with their superiors. The dominant group, who were mediocre in true sense of the word, enjoyed all powers to make strategic decisions with their own interests in mind. They derived power from their strong but suspicious relationship with the top management.

The dissident group was fiercely opposed to the dominant group but it had no real power to challenge it except highlighting some unethical/illegal activities indirectly through student groups or backbiting during interaction at staff room or other shared spaces. They, however, did not have the courage to speak truth to power directly. It was sometimes nauseating to hear them talking the right things without doing anything worthwhile to change the system. They always feared reprisal by the dominant group.

Members of the dormant group were indifferent to what was happening around them. They would do enough work to avoid the wrath of superiors and would leave the campus as early as possible to avoid any kind of confrontation. They were essentially apolitical but this attitude never helped them save their skins when something went wrong even when they had no apparent role in it. The buck, as they say, would always stop with them.

Except a few lonely wolves here and there, most people working in academia – where experimentation with new ideas and challenging the authority should be the norm rather than exception – never question long held assumptions. Conformity is encouraged and rewarded. Anyone who comes up with innovative ideas is considered heretic, disrupter, and troublemaker. The superiors, in particular, like subordinates never challenge their authority and wisdom. Critical feedback is construed as insubordination and against the principle of esprit de corps. Anyone going against the wind pays a price and thus mediocrity thrives and rules in Pakistan.

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