A Call To Adequacy

Good just plain isn’t good enough anymore. This irritates me.

On more than one rating scale I’ve seen — in things like employee performance evaluations, customer satisfaction surveys, and the like — the rating scale goes something like this:

5 — Extraordinary
4 — Very Good
3 — Good
2 — Fair
1 — Poor

I look at this and I think, “Shouldn’t ‘fair’ be in the middle? ‘Fair’ is a neutral sort of evaluation, ‘Good’ is praise.” But the neutral evaluation is below the middle of the range of available responses. Neutrality is not acceptable. Although a desire to improve oneself is commendable, within this mindset lies a seductive and pernicious species of mental rot.

Let me offer some further examples, to illustrate the idea.

On more than one customer satisfaction survey I’ve been asked to respond to, the service provider (auto dealers, cell phone providers, even the home-improvement megastore) has gone out of their way to say to me, “You’ll be getting a call to measure your customer satisfaction with your experience here today, and they’re going to ask you to rate your experience on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 meaning that we exceeded your expectations in every way. Anything less than a ‘5’ is considered unacceptable.”

So let’s say I make a counter-offer on a car, and the salesman says he has to go talk that over with the sales manager. He offers me a cup of coffee while I wait. Now let’s say that while the salesman is watching a basketball game in the break room negotiating on my behalf with the sales manager, I find that I would like some cream in my coffee and I find only powdered creamer instead of those little packs of flavored liquid creamer that I would prefer. So I wind up rating the “comfort of the auto dealership” as a “4” instead of a “5” because I’d really rather have the liquid creamer for my coffee, that was an “unacceptable” level of customer service? Really? That’s “unacceptable”?

The average IQ score in America is not 105. It can’t possibly be. Whatever it is that an IQ test measures, an average amount of it is by definition 100. You weigh the questions by difficulty as measured by the number of incorrect answers to that question received, and then count the number of incorrect answers to the questions by weight. That gives you a raw score. Then you find the number — likely a fractional number — for which every test taker has a score either above or below that number. When the number of people in the first set (performed above baseline) is equal to the number of people in the second set (performed below baseline) that number is then normalized to 100.

The fact that I need to explain this normalization process in such elaborate detail indicates that people no longer know what words like “normal” or “adequate” really mean. And when we don’t know what “normal” and “average” are, we don’t know what “good” and “extraordinary” are, either. Everything becomes subject to the equivalent of grade inflation.

That’s the classic example, really: grade inflation in academia. In theory, a grade of “C” in a class means that your performance was adequate. Average. Acceptable. Not extraordinary, not remarkable, but demonstrating an appropriate level of mastery of the subject. You learned what we wanted you to learn.

But in real life, how many of you Readers would be satisfied with getting a “C”? It seems like no one is. The process of grade inflation has left people unsatisfied with anything less than an “A.” (I say this before my current business law class has to give me any grades.) When I went to high school, an all-“A” average was a 4.0 because you got 4 points for an “A,” 3 points for a “B,” and so on. The innovation of an Advanced Placement class with a grade scale of 1-5 rather than 0-4 was a brand-new thing. I remember being very excited about the possibility of being able to compete for a 4.1 grade point average and feeling special for being chosen to participate in the AP class.

A few weeks ago, we went to a party with one of our neighbors and found that their daughter had just graduated from high school with a grade point average of something like 5.8 because AP classes aren’t enough anymore, now the student needs to take “Honors AP” with a grade scale that runs up to six and apparently “Honors,” “AP,” and “Honors AP” are offered for every subject including underwater basket-weaving.

The girl was also named class valedictorian, which impressed The Wife and I very much. When I first heard she was valedictorian, my mind filled in the word “the” into the sentence, as in “She is the class valedictorian.” Then, we found out that she was one of thirty class valedictorians. Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a special thing anymore. To both of us, “valedictorian” meant that she got the highest grade point average of anyone in her graduating class, or had somehow otherwise distinguished herself academically.

What this really means is that this girl did, indeed, perform above the level of most of her peers. But “above average” just didn’t provide enough ornamentation to describe her performance, so she along with twenty-nine of her peers all were bestowed the signal honorific of “valedictorian.” And the 5.8 grade point average was something she wore lightly, precisely because it was not so heavy a burden in the first place.

I feel compelled here to point out that this young lady is very promising, very bright, and The Wife and I expect to hear from her parents that she will do well in college and eventually find a good, probably professional, career. We know from interacting with her directly that she is smart and capable and has a good head on her shoulders. When I say these things, they are words of praise. Yet somehow as I write these sentences critiquing the use of words like “valedictorian” and condemning the high grade point average she earned, I feel as though I am somehow disparaging her. Which I’m not. I’m disparaging a culture of effusive evaluation that has allowed itself to inflate everything from “good” to “great” and from “great” to “extraordinary,” reducing “average” to “unacceptable.” Grade inflation has required that to distinguish herself at all, the student must earn heaps upon heaps of honors, and the school must dispense layers upon layers of honors, until the honors don’t mean anything anymore.

What it comes down to is that there are words in the English language that ostensibly mean one thing but have come to mean something else. “Average.” “Normal.” “Acceptable.” “Good enough.” “Adequate.” “Fair.” “Mediocre.” When I use these words (I hope), I convey their exact and time-honored definition. But often, hearing these words used in regular, everyday speech, there is a tone of condescension in the use of descriptors that ought to convey neutrality.

The problem with this sort of thing is that it devalues the meaning of “excellence.” The result of this process will be that a future survey of this nature that I read will have a rating scale that looks like this:

5 — Absolutely mind-blowingly AWESOME!!!!
4 — Extraordinary
3 — Outstanding
2 — Exceeds expectations
1 — Very Good

Not only does this sort of survey not leave any room to express any kind of disapproval at all, it requires me to make a distinction between levels of excellence. It’s not enough that something be excellent. Things must be not only excellent, they must be superlatively good. Cosmically superlative. They must push the boundaries of what is theoretically possible in terms of excellence. Every customer service experience I have must heighten my realization of what outstanding service could possibly be.

You may have heard the phrase “failure is not an option.” When the evaluation scale has “acceptable” as its lowest point, failure really isn’t an option. Such an evaluation lacks value.

If everybody and everything is above average, then we’re no longer using the dictionary definition of the word “average.” By definition, there is and ought to be nothing wrong with adequacy. So go ahead and call something “adequate” if that’s what it really was. The person receiving this evaluation may take it as an insult, but it isn’t one.

I don’t want to discourage the attitude that you should always try to exceed expectations, that you should always be trying to improve and deliver the best service you possibly can or demonstrate your intelligence in the most remarkable way possible. Rather, I’m trying to preserve the idea of excellence. When everything is extraordinarily good, actual excellence ceases to exist.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. You hit on my stats nerve by showing that first Likert scale and I guffawed at your future scale.On one other point: I sold cars and a pretty good chunk of my income depended on getting perfect surveys (no item was answered other than excellent). We'd be pissed because some of the items are not within a saleperson's control. Still, I got a lot of perfect ones and got my $$. But, I had to explain what 'perfect' meant and then just hoped they liked me enough to fill it out 'perfect'. I'm guessing if I hadn't explained that to them, the scores would be more accurate.People should know, though, how those surveys effect the income of salespeople. Consider it a tip, or better yet, not docking a big part of their pay, when you fill out the survey 'perfectly'. Even one item with a 'better than average' answer will cost them $100s of dollars a month, sometimes $1000s.

  2. Don't even get me started?! Ugh, if I have to type one more "Commendation" for an employee that goes like this: "Employee X was very helpful and professional. S/he was great. S/he answered all my questions and was so patient. I just thought you should know what a great employee you have."Really? Someone who is helpful and professional is a great employee? They answered your questions and were patient? Wow, then what the hell did we hire them for if they're not ALWAYS behaving in that manner? Isn't that their job?! These types of comments from customers frustrate me. Either these customers are regularly receiving horrible customer service, or they haven't a clue as to what great service really is. Or, perhaps both. Either way, lowering the bar and making rating scales like those noted in the post can not be the answer.

Comments are closed.