Standards. There’s nothing standard about them

Standards - When high jumper Dick Fosbury changed the game. Forever.


We set standards for ourselves to help us reach our goals and live lives that we can be proud of. Standards help to keep us on track.

Standards can come in the form of expectations, values, guidelines, targets, KPIs, dress codes, disciplinary offences, reward structures, behavioural matrices and organisational policies. There are many ways to impose standards.

Every one of us has a set of personal standards. Whether we think about them of not, we act and behave in ways that suit us. Our standards are unique to us, based on our background, social situation and working environment amongst other factors. We can relax or ignore them when we want to. We shouldn’t, but we do.

In addition to our personal standards, we all adopt the standards of the organisations that we’re part of. That might be an employer, a gym we’re a member of, or a local church we worship at. Those standards will vary widely depending on the organisation involved. Money orientated businesses for example, will set standards around financial targets, increasing sales and reducing costs. More tribal organisations will have standards that focus on supporting each other, positive collaboration and ensuring the survival of the organisation. Our challenge is to join organisations that have similar standards to us. Otherwise we’ll be in conflict from the outset.

Setting Standards

There are four points to bear in mind:

Firstly, your organisation should set the standards that it needs to achieve its purpose, to make its vision a reality and adhere to its chosen values. here’s only a point in imposing standards if they help your organisation to achieve its purpose. Do yours?

Secondly, some standards may be higher and some may be lower compared to other organisations and situations. Some may just be different. Whatever their type or level, they have to work for your organisation. You should never just adopt standardised versions, that are applied without thought. They have to be supportive and relevant. Are yours?

Thirdly, whatever kind they are, standards shouldn’t be standard. Competing businesses may operate in the same market, but they won’t share exactly the same vision, purpose and values. Each business is different. So each organisation’s standards should be different. Adopting someone else’s standards, without considering how suitable they are, is a bad idea. Standards should always be tailored to your organisation’s needs and its situation.

Fourthly, remember that your choice of standards will heavily influence who chooses to join your organisation and who chooses to leave it. That’s why your standards have to be relevant to your mission. They shouldn’t be too onerous or too lenient. Meeting and achieving a set of standards should always make life easier for your organisation, not harder.

Setting standards is about driving up your behaviour and performance levels. The right standards will deliver the performance your organisation needs. 

Agree Your Standards

Sometimes, we can temporarily break our own standards. An occasional lapse may be okay, we are human after all, but if we’re regularly breaking our standards, we need to change them. Setting unrealistic standards that can’t be achieved is unsettling and demotivating. Standards must be both achievable and worth achieving. They need to be adopted and accepted.

When we’re operating in a team or group, we need a set of standards that everyone agrees and everyone can achieve. What’s pointless is setting standards that some people will always follow, but other people never do. That’s incredibly divisive. Find a set of standards that everyone’s prepared to accept and agree. Even if they’re lower than you’d like them to be, it’s better to agree a set that everyone will comply with. Then, over time, try to raise them up and the people they apply to.

“No, I don’t give a damn about the morning after.

Bottles on the floor, don’t even matter.

I don’t want a number, you ain’t gonna answer.

Let’s just stick to the one night standards.”

‘One Night Standards’ by Ashley McBryde

Enforcing Standards

There are many ways to impose standards. A mixture of rewards and penalties can help to produce the standards required. Too much ‘carrot’ might cost you too much to achieve. Too much ‘stick’ is demotivating and counter-productive.

‘Encouraging’ methods of enforcement include thank you’s, public praise, bonuses, pay rises, commission payments and promotions. ‘Discouraging’ methods include financial penalties, missing out on a promotion, disciplinary action and dismissal. A fair and reasonable combination of both tends to work best.

Winning Standards

The standards that you need for success, are the ones that get you closer to winning and further away from losing. Any standards should support your organisation’s vision, purpose and values. They should also focus on the winning controllables for your market or competition. They are the actions that make the biggest difference between success and failure.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) has a clear purpose ‘to save lives at sea.’ So its values are directly related to that purpose. They are ‘selflessness, courage, dependability and trustworthiness’. They are the basis for its behaviours. The RNLI’s winning standards will be ones that encourage these four behaviours and go on to save lives at sea. What are your winning standards?

Don’t always stick to the standard approach

Standards offer consistency and uniformity. They bring comfort and reassurance. That is until they’re outmoded.

People have been breaking and improving existing standards throughout history. If nothing changes, there’s no progress. It wasn’t until Admiral Nelson broke the ‘Standard Line’ approach to sea battles that anyone sailed their ships directly into the enemy line. The nautical status quo was ripped up and improved on. HMS Victory stands in Portsmouth Docks and Nelson looks down on London as a result. One standard was replaced by another.

In 1968, Dick Fosbury invented a brand new high-jump technique. As a result, the ‘Fosbury Flop’ replaced the ‘Straddle Technique’ and became the new Gold standard in high-jumping. After that, no one using the Straddle Technique could ever beat it. The list of people, who have re-set the status quo and driven up existing standards is long and distinguished. They are the standard bearers.

The Lillis Lesson

I have a friend called Lillis. Years ago, a former work colleague of his bought a new car. When he was asked about why he’d chosen a sunroof, the colleague simply replied ‘Standard!’ At the time, the sunroof he’d chosen was an expensive, unusual, optional extra and not at all standard. His response made Lillis laugh. Since Lillis told us that story, he and my friends have always used the word ‘Standard’ to mean something that isn’t.

There’s a useful lesson in here. We should all broaden our definition of what’s standard, to make our organisations less obvious, boring and predictable. By being more like Lillis, we can expand our thinking and drive up our standards.

What do you call standard?