Don’t aim for perfection. Aim for better than yesterday.
Perfectionism is one of the most polarizing attributes for managers to deal with. Some leaders instinctively stand by it as key characteristic behind motivating an individual to achieve quality results, whilst others see it as a negative characteristic which causes poor time prioritization. No matter where you stand as a leader you will need to manage perfectionism at some point, be it in yourself or in those you lead. The key thing with perfectionism is to recognize it is not a black and white issue – as it is neither an all positive or all negative characteristic – rather it has both good and bad parts that need to be identified and understood. This is where good management comes in to separate the good from the bad and channel energies and efforts onto using the good parts.
The first step to managing perfectionism is separating the good parts from the bad.
Perfectionism as a personality trait is generally characterized by a person striving for flawlessness through setting high performance standards. Normally it is accompanied by critical self-evaluations and often combined with concerns regarding others’ feedback. If not channeled correctly, it can make an individual focus more on how things “appear” over achieving the objective of the task. However applied to one task it can actually be an asset as it helps provide a vision for what can be achieved and pushes for high standards. The problem with this comes when one has many tasks to do, or oversee, as a downside of perfectionism – when not tamed – is it focuses the individual’s attention and work flow onto one or a few tasks and at the expense of everything else. Perfectionists by nature frequently get bogged down on doing 1 micro task excellently, over achieving the end macro objectives of their position. Indeed tick box task – rather than objective – mindset employees, who focus on completing each task over achieving objectives, frequently have the untamed perfectionist personality.
Perfectionism focuses an individual’s energies on to one or a few tasks they find worthy of their perfectionism.
It is useful to bear in mind that perfectionism often comes from a person wanting to please or give a certain vision of themselves to others. For example the straight A student often can’t accept not being “first” or “best” in a micro task, but in the world of work being successful in our roles is normally far more complex than doing a few things great. It rather comes down to how well we achieve our core objectives over just being “excellent” in a few tasks. Fast paced work is always a time exchange, i.e. success is what you achieve divided by the time spent at it and this reality in many ways is the biggest difference between the work and study environment. At university high performance can often still be seen as lineal i.e. you do each task you have to the best of your ability. Work by comparison normally throws up so many things to do that aiming to do each thing great with equal commitment is simply impossible. Instead hard decisions and effective time management is needed to navigate through the work load to still achieve the overall macro objectives that matter most. Indeed this is where “cutting corners” becomes important, something perfectionists by nature find horrifying to do.
University often encourages perfectionism – striving to do your best at every task with equal focus – but work is rarely lineal and rather pulls much more on the skill of the worker to time manage a large list of things to do.
When one “wants” to do things perfectly, one tends to focus on the process to achieve this being lineal, i.e. step by step. A perfectionist by nature desires to give each step their undivided attention and focus but contrary to this desire is the reality that most work will not allow for this level of narrowed down focus, especially not in a leadership. Work “needs” normally push us to focus on and do MANY things over just doing a few. This is hence why perfectionists often get more stressed out as their high standards make failure always personal and their untamed perfectionism makes cutting corners non viable. They focus on micro quality but often they fail to see big picture and how macro objectives are achieved. Of course saying this, a sense of detail that comes from being a perfectionist, is useful to push toward quality but only when one knows when to apply (turn on) and when not to (turn it off).
The push for high quality that perfectionism can give is something that should be tamed so we can turn it on and off in the needed moments.
What is key as a great manager is to recognize that perfectionism is neither something to fear as a characteristic in your staff, nor something to embrace and believe is all good. Rather a manager should look to recruit people who have naturally high standards (and likely parts of a perfectionist personality) and then tame the perfectionist in them so that staff member can learn to use the good bits to help them achieve high quality results but likewise not suffer the negative consequences of stress or poor time management. Great managers know that inside of almost every perfectionist is a high performing individual waiting for someone to show them right way to apply their perfectionism.