What happens when your best just isn’t good enough?

Understanding the differences between ‘good’, ‘good enough’ and ‘best efforts’ are often conflicted and confused within the workplace and indeed in our own heads. From front line delivery through to senior leadership I have experienced this to some extent in almost every team I’ve led. So, let’s explore some concepts around this common problem and see what we can learn for ourselves and our teams- even perhaps into family life and relationships. I think in some aspects of life at times we have all questioned or been questioned or felt emotional responses on whether we are ‘good’, ‘good enough’ or making ‘best efforts’.  

Many years ago, leading a large operational delivery team I had one member of staff significantly underperforming. At first glance this was a simple issue of capability or indeed the lack of. But like so many aspects in leadership it became more complex for a while. So, what was at play? If we unpack some of the moving parts then it may help understand the wider concepts.

At first, I was trying to determine whether it was an issue of will or skill? The gap between ‘can do but won’t perform’ or ‘can’t perform’. The will/skill 2 x 2 matrix has been of critical use to me in my leadership journey and coaching. Whilst it can box someone in, it is helpful to determine the support intervention to help. Either coach, direct, empower or motivate. The missing element to make it three dimensional is effort.

On this occasion , when confronted with the evidence of underperformance we drifted seamlessly and immediately into the social and psychological realms. The expectation gap often exists in my view between definitions and within language. Of what is ‘good’ or ‘not good’ or even ‘good enough’. We also took a short conversational drive down a management cul-de-sac called ‘effort’. The result of arriving at this intersection was pure confusion.

What follows is not a verbatim account but broad strokes of how this conversation, and many like it over 20 years, went.

Me : ‘After reviewing your performance against the objectives X, Y, Z -You’re not meeting the expectations and standards’ 

Her: “Yes I am. I think I’m doing fine”.

Oh. Oops. The expectation gap opens up.

Me: “But your work is clearly below standard we require as a business in X , it’s not good.

Her: “I disagree, I think it’s good enough”.

The performance definition gap cracks and widens.

Me: “I’m sorry it is not ‘good enough’ and anyway as an organisation we don’t aspire to be just ‘good enough’”  

 Her: “But I’m trying my best”.

Effort instantly confused with performance and the crack becomes a cavern.

A deep fissure of disbelief now in both directions exists in the room.

Me: “What do you suggest we do now? What happens when your best is not good enough?”

There hangs the question. Sometimes said or unsaid but implied. So, what does happen? And why might we have these gaps, which once seen, appear everywhere. I believed she was trying her best. I was convinced performance was below a good standard. I believed that she believed she was not just good enough but good.

With experience I have learnt to play these conversations differently , aiming for more up front objectively but I have to admit that despite this they have continued to arise through my 20 year leadership career. So why?

The multifaceted nature of the concept of “good” is a starting point. As humans we see things often in binary. It helps us short cut huge data sets in a busy world. To understand more we can draw on philosophical, social, and psychological perspectives, explore the complexities of defining “good,” the impact of perceived failure on individuals and teams, and strategies for coping with disappointment and moving forward. When your best is ‘not good enough’ it is laden with deep personal and professional meaning. By critically analysing this concept of “good” in various contexts, we might provide insights into our individual and collective human experience of striving, falling short, and finding resilience in the face of adversity.

‘Noone comes to work to do a bad job’ is a reasonable starting point. It always been a  guiding thought for me ahead of difficult conversations. This does not mean that some people don’t do a bad job.  Likewise we can apply this to relationships, family and wider society. It is a rare psychology that has within it pure malevolence (although I have seen it at play in senior leaders in business). The pursuit of “good” is a fundamental aspect of the human experience, driving individuals to strive for excellence, personal fulfilment and even moral virtue,. Yet, despite our best efforts, there are times when our actions, intentions, or outcomes do not meet the standards we set for ourselves or others. This can be uncomfortable territory.

The concept of “good” has been the subject of philosophical inquiry for millennia, with diverse interpretations and theories proposed by philosophers across cultures and traditions. From Aristotle’s virtue ethics to Kant’s categorical imperative and utilitarianism, philosophers have grappled with questions of what constitutes goodness, moral rightness, and the ultimate aims of human life. While these theories offer valuable insights into ethical decision-making and human flourishing, they also highlight the subjective and context-dependent nature of “goodness.” Good becomes a million-dollar word wrapped in social and philosophy and that’s before it is applied to mundane professional tasks. And therein lies the first part of our conversation problem.

In more social contexts, the notion of “good” is often shaped by cultural norms, societal expectations, and institutional frameworks. Individuals are socialized from a young age to internalize these norms and values, which influence their beliefs, behaviours, and judgments about what is considered good or desirable. However, societal standards of goodness can be arbitrary, biased, or exclusionary, leading to inequalities, injustices, and systemic barriers that perpetuate social divisions and marginalization. Even my dog Murphy knows when he has been ‘a good boy’ – a judgement mostly about behaviour rather than his best efforts.

But often effort is confused with performance. You can try hard but not do well. These are often the hardest positions to be in. If you put me in the 100m race in the Olympics it does not matter how hard I try, how much effort I give… I do not win the race and no one is giving me a gold medal. We don’t reward effort. We can praise effort but fundamentally when the rubber hits the road we credit performance. (Although performance and outcomes are also often conflated but that’s for another time). There is a profound impact though from not making the grade. Of feeling or being not good enough (by whoever we agree sets the standards). From a psychological standpoint, the experience of falling short of expectations can evoke a range of emotional responses, including disappointment, frustration, guilt, and shame. These negative emotions can undermine individuals’ self-esteem, motivation, and well-being, potentially leading to feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness. Moreover, societal pressure to meet unrealistic standards of success and perfection can exacerbate the psychological toll of perceived failure, contributing to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The stakes are high in the ‘good enough’ arena. So where does someone go from here?

Despite the challenges posed by perceived failure, individuals have the capacity to cultivate resilience and bounce back from setbacks. Coping strategies such as reframing negative thoughts, seeking social support, and engaging in self-care can help individuals navigate the emotional aftermath of disappointment and regain a sense of agency and purpose. Moreover, embracing a growth mindset, which views setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth, can foster resilience and adaptive coping mechanisms in the face of adversity. This might not solve ultimate a performance shortfall in the workplace but through conversations and reflections, including through coaching, we might make sense of and reframe our ‘failure’. 

So, who sets ‘good’? Well, it is essentially, in reality, mostly a careful and subtle negotiation in the family, relationships and workplace. We’d like to think of it in absolute terms but the ‘humanness’ of business gets in the way. Of course, there are some performance standards that might be easily set in the workplace expressed often in hard currency terms or outputs but more often than not they are more complex and open to interpretation and constant negotiation particularly in work that involves craft and creativity or nuanced leadership.  At the other extreme times this position can be open to abuse through a game of ‘corporate performance hide and seek’ which is best avoided and reveals deeper and more dangerous culture misalignment.

In light of these complexities surrounding the concept of “good,” individuals may benefit from redefining their notions of success, achievement, and worthiness for themselves. This is important even if it leaves an expectation gap at work. Rather than striving for perfection or external validation, embracing imperfection and recognizing the inherent value of effort, progress, and authenticity can foster a more compassionate and balanced approach to self-evaluation. By reframing failures as valuable learning experiences and embracing the journey of self-discovery and personal growth, individuals can find meaning and fulfilment.

But beware the self lies of ‘I’ve tried my best’ if you really haven’t. Many a time I’ve heard that said by colleagues, family members or friends about a situation as a way of displacing responsibility rather being ‘at cause’. Have you really tried your best? Have you really given the maximum effort? Was there no more to be reasonably done? Did you really think about what ‘good’ really meant and how it was best to execute the strategy to get there? Did you really have the skills and knowledge to succeed? Was all the support you could have brought into fruition in place? Was the strategy even correct in the first place or did you work hard paddling in the wrong direction (a common error). 

The concept of “good” , ‘good enough’ and effort is inherently subjective and multifaceted, shaped by various philosophical, social, and psychological factors at play. When our best efforts fall short of expectations, either our own or those set by others, it can evoke a range of emotions and challenges that test our resilience and self-perception.

However, by taking a four-pillar approach I think we can help.

1. Critically examining the nature of “good”

2. Redefine success on our own terms ahead of discussing with others

3. Clearly understand the standards required and be clear on the skills and qualities required to execute the right strategy. Rigorously avoid confusing effort with performance.

4. Embrace imperfection as part of the human learning experience.

If these four approaches are adopted then we as individuals can potentially better navigate the complexities of perceived failure with greater resilience, compassion, and self-acceptance. We still may ‘fail’ but we might just ‘fail better’, recover faster and even decide to apply our talents, skills, passions and love elsewhere.  Ultimately, it is through this journey of self-discovery and growth that we find meaning and fulfilment in the pursuit of our aspirations, even when our ‘best is not good enough’.