Aside from being one of the most cliched answers to the interview question, “What is your biggest weakness?”, perfectionism can be a real detriment to you and your business – not to mention your health, with one study finding that senior citizen perfectionists were actually 51% more likely to die in their 6.5-year study!
Perfectionism can be an insidious force in our lives and businesses, despite its perceived association with high achievement. Many famous perfectionists are lauded for their uncompromising vision, like Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart, and yet regardless of their achievements, they’re notoriously difficult to deal with according to insiders.
Constantly striving for perfection can result in unrealistic expectations for your staff, as it can make them feel like nothing they do is right. This creates a looming dread around completing tasks for a perfectionist – subordinates feel their work will always need to be fixed, corrected, changed, or even scrapped. While some workers will kill themselves to match these high standards, other workers subsequently feel disengaged, and counter-intuitively, can actually end up trying less hard. Employees begin to think, if our boss is just going to change what we worked on every time, why should we try harder?
In other instances, perfectionism can lead to poor delegation. Since perfectionists think to themselves that they can do things better, they often hoard responsibilities. The feeling they have is that there is only one correct way to do something and they are the only one capable of doing it. Even if they do an excellent job on those tasks they’ve undertaken, it can really slow down progress. Moreover, it does little for their subordinates’ sense of worth.
With both of the above examples being detrimental to employees and the company, on a grander scale perfectionists also suffer from a distinct form of rigidity. When someone believes their way is the right way consistently, it allows little room for creativity and collaboration. Companies helmed by perfectionists can often be unresponsive in the face of serious market changes. Reportedly it took Steve Jobs three years to get his first Macintosh to market because of his obsession with fixing all details – including making sure the internal components that consumers wouldn’t even see were aesthetically pleasing.
While hindsight might paint this obsession with perfection in a positive light, most business people would say this is the exception, not the rule, as the tech space has proven that getting a minimal viable product out to the market is a much better pathway to success than waiting until perfection. Never mind the inefficiencies, there’s also first-mover advantage that gets lost with this approach.
Return on investment is a major issue that may perfectionists overlook. That report that would have been considered very good after four hours of writing, but takes eight hours to get close to perfect is wasted effort. Often people don’t understand that most recipients of your work are looking for good, competent work – not perfection.
Organizationally, perfectionism can rear its head in the form of over-cautiousness and a deeply ingrained fear of making mistakes. This can make even small companies less nimble and it unfortunately avoids the valuable feedback that can come from taking calculated risks.
Making a break from perfectionism can be tricky as it’s necessary to relinquish some control. While it’s not easy, practicing in smaller scenarios can be helpful. Some of our team building events are a perfect venue for practicing new behaviors, such as our building bridges event wherein people are tasked with creating a bridge with certain specifications in a short time frame. Perfection just isn’t an option in this case, and so it forces teams to use a different paradigm. Programs like this encourage your organization’s perfectionists to flex their delegation muscles since it is impossible to take on all the roles successfully. Organizational leadership can also encourage letting go of perfection on smaller and lower impact projects, allowing employees to take more risks as the stakes are lower.
Through practice, perfection can be chipped away at through delegation, purposeful flexibility, and reframing failure as learning opportunities. The payoff is a happier team and a more dynamic organization fit for success and growth.
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