Attention Managers: Perfection is Unachievable

There’s an old saying. “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Perfectionism is a strong force that accomplishes so little.

perfection

In psychology, Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.[1][2]

Time and time again, smart, well-meaning people get caught trying to achieve perfection yet accomplish very little. Why? It’s because the need to achieve perfection requires planning and analysis. All the preparation never allows work to start. Delays pile on delays.

There is a mindset among perfectionists that says “If it cannot be perfect, I shouldn’t do it” or said more positively “I won’t start until I can know it will be perfect.”

Eventually the whole idea gets set aside in favor of something new that must be done. And surprise! A whole new do-loop begins of preparing for perfection. Insanity!

My argument here is biased towards the business setting, but the principles can apply at home too.

In business, things move quickly. Yes, there are those projects that can take years to complete, but the day-to-day actions that add to the project completion can require decisions that often must be made quickly.

Anyone with a tendency toward perfectionist thinking will not only find themselves frustrated, but will often frustrate and confuse the people who work for them.

The Manager Curse

Managers who tend to be perfectionists will stifle the effort of the team. When perfectionism exists at the top, the team quickly becomes discouraged. They feel that nothing is good enough. even their own “best efforts” are taken for granted or even ridiculed.

Soon the motivations die. People just start showing up and doing the bare minimum to get by. The manager senses the lack of quality effort and becomes more frustrated. Then the downward cycle begins.

With all of that negative energy within the team, perfection can NEVER be achieved.

Perfectionism is an extreme. Balance and equilibrium in the work place require moderation to stay in sync. A team that collaborates and pulls together achieve far more than any single effort to hit perfection. That is why synergism (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) emerged as a business buzz word in the 90’s.

The Feeding Frenzy

I’ve seen situations where a perfectionist boss hires employees with perfectionist traits. It’s a common problem for most new managers. We hire people who seem to act like us. (You learn later this is a horrible reason to hire someone).

When it happens, the perpetual effort to define and achieve perfection becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure. Paralysis by analysis takes over. The boss and the worker get embroiled in long winded discussions about how perfect things are going to be. They feed off each other’s bent for perfection. NOTHING gets done.

How to Stop Perfectionism

Without trying to sound insensitive to this bonafide psychological condition, managers who are perfectionists need to get some help. Their ability to rationalize what an acceptable work product looks like may be impaired.

If the perfection mindset goes on for long, whole teams will burn out. Therefore, you might need an intervention.

If you are the perfectionist manager, seek advice from trusted peers or coaches. Get outside of your own box for a bit. Learn what “good” can be. It may not be perfect, but it is good, maybe even great.

Then, as new tasks come up, make a specific effort to put the brakes on the need to seek perfection. Realize it is a false sense of success that hinders actual achievement.

Business problems seldom require perfect solutions. Think about that great scene in Apollo 13 when the technicians were tasked with using a bunch of scrap material to craft a fix for the air handlers that were dying aboard the space capsule. That was far from a perfect scenario, yet a creative solution, all bound with duct tale and wire saved the day.

apollo13-junk

Your leadership of your team cannot be stifled by perfectionism. There are amazing alternatives. You might make it a habit to include the team in a discussion about what a positive outcome should look like.

Besides, if you step back and let your team have a broader reach for solving the problems of the day, you just might be surprised at how perfect their answer may be.

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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    • Doug Thorpe

      Dave thanks for the shout out at your blog at blog.practicingpm.com I’ve been in and around the PM world for some time, mostly as a de facto exec pressed into service when a new project sprung up that no one else wanted to manage. I love the challenge and the excitement of opening a new project and seeing it over the goal line when the final deliverable is made.