Perfectionist Dilemma

I used to be proud of the study system I’d created to achieve mostly A’s in school. But later, I realized that this same thorough approach did not ensure success at work.

This came to bear one day when my boss stopped by my desk about 15 minutes before a meeting. We’d been discussing one of my ideas earlier and he asked if I could mention it to our CEO when the meeting was over. With only a few minutes available, I quickly typed up a concise outline of my thought process so I could be clear, printed it – and ran to the meeting.

After the meeting I stopped to talk to the CEO, as promised. I started to explain, “I had this idea I was thinking would help…“ but he interrupted me, pointing to the two page document in my hand. “Is that your idea?” he asked. He took the document, glanced at it for no longer than 20 seconds, then nodded and said, “Yes. This makes sense. Do it!” I was dumbfounded as he walked away.

Success in hand, I reflected about the concise approach that had worked in pitching my idea. It was hard to believe that a two-page bulleted document created in 15 minutes would be more effective at selling an idea than the longer proposals and presentations I’d previously spent hours putting together. The whole scenario got me thinking about how I might change my approach in other aspects of my job.

The next day I began to move away from my perfectionism, allowing myself to be more human, while keeping top priority tasks at the forefront. For instance, rather than attempting to respond to each email every day, which often took hours – I began prioritizing my emails – ready to accept the consequences of those I missed. When I wrote articles, proposals or programs I would draft ideas as quickly and completely as possible, then used a simple and efficient editing system that provided enough polish for the purpose, without needing it to be ‘perfect.’

Mistakes often got corrected later as I noticed them, and I must admit I did some cringing when I wondered who else had seen them. But overall I was getting more done, making a stronger impact, and getting better results.

If you have perfectionist tendencies and find yourself cringing at this approach, keep in mind that I am not suggesting lowering your standards on mission critical work. Nor do you need to use the same approach that works for me. At the same time, if you notice yourself working more hours than you like, struggling to make timely decisions, and watching peers or competitors with lower quality output garner more recognition or better results, consider the shifts outlined below.

Here are three key questions to consider when quality matters, and productivity matters just as much:

1. How can mission critical standards improve by lowering standards in some areas?

First, identify where the consequences of an error are completely unacceptable. For example, if it puts lives at risk, hurts customers, damages the environment, or compromises the integrity of the organization. These are the parts of business I would consider mission critical.

When you’re a perfectionist, sometimes it’s hard to see any aspect of your job as not mission critical. But if everything is critical, you lose the ability to be truly masterful in the areas that matter the most. This is akin to not being able to prioritize – which results in inefficiency. Individuals and teams who don’t effectively prioritize spread their energy and resources too thin, and ultimately allow non-mission critical work to jeopardize the most important work. Consequently, this results in lower quality work since they’ve run out of time.

One exercise I use with my clients allows them to apply the 80/20 rule by identifying the 20% of their work that is responsible for 80% of their key mission or objective. When you put more focus and energy into that top 20%, while allowing the other 80% of the work to be done quickly and maybe not perfectly, it could yield a better-quality result overall. Plus, that top 20% often consists of those areas that require the highest quality in your output.

2. Where can mistakes be learning opportunities?

Perfectionists often have a hard time seeing value in mistakes. But especially if you manage others, developing a tolerance for, and even embracing mistakes, could get your team performing to higher standards more quickly.

You can tell people what to do, write them detailed instructions and train them for hours, yet they still might not “get it”. The problem with this approach is that people don’t learn from being told what to do. People learn from experiences, and they must make and correct mistakes in order to deeply understand what “right” is and begin the process of self-correction.

If you, like many managers, fear the repercussions of upset customers or the wrath of your own boss if you allow your team to make mistakes, here’s some information that may help:

  • Studies have shown that customers are more loyal to organizations who have made mistakes and then gone above and beyond in owning and fixing those mistakes compared to organizations who have never made mistakes at all.
  • This same trend shows up in personal relationships. Superficial relationships tend to be pleasant, but end quickly at the first sign of trouble. People have closer and stronger relationships when they have gone through tough times or resolved issues together. When people make mistakes faster, own up to them, and resolve them together, relationships build more quickly and last longer.
  • One training strategy I teach managers is to have a system in place to recover from the inevitable mistakes that happen when a new person is learning and do everything possible to involve that person in the recovery process. This experiential learning process takes more courage than controlling everything in the background, but it also empowers people to learn more deeply and get to where you can depend on them to work independently faster.

Allowing and even encouraging mistakes as you are developing your team not only speeds up the learning process but also encourages the team to push themselves to try new things, elevating everyone’s performance and ultimately giving you more competent resources you can trust to produce consistently high quality results.

3. When is it better to make a wrong decision than no decision?

We live in a world that’s constantly changing and we are often faced with decisions that have no obvious “right” option. Successful leaders are able to make decisions without all the necessary information and effectively pivot later as needed.

I often find that perfectionistic leaders take too much time to make decisions to the detriment of their teams and their organizations. While impulsive decision-making can be disastrous, delaying a decision because there is no way to know the right answer can have consequences that are just as bad.

For example, let’s say your team needs your approval to move forward on a project. You are concerned about the return on investment but have no way to know what will happen. As a result, you’re indecisive and since you haven’t gotten back with the team, no work is getting done on that project. By making a decision, you’ll at least get your team focused. You can decide not to move forward, and then redirect the team based on that decision. Or you can decide to take one step forward and re-evaluate, which will get them moving toward a milestone at a minimal investment. Another option is to decide to go all in with a commitment to do everything it takes to make the investment pay off.

While any one of those decisions might seem right or wrong in retrospect, effective managers commit, and have backup and recovery plans in case of failure. This keeps teams working with purpose and even when a project must be completely scrapped, everyone has learned something from the experience, which creates value.

As this article shares, when you’re willing to take a leap of faith and embrace the benefits that come from so-called failure…or working in the less-than-perfect zone, the rewards can be great. You’ll experience a powerful paradigm shift and enjoy more success in your career, all while naturally seeing more life-balance.

If you’d like to discuss how this mindset shift could make a positive difference for you in your work, contact us to schedule a consultation.


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