As a leader you set a standard of excellence under the auspicious belief that flawless execution-- all the time at all cost -- is the only path toward success. Research conducted by Joachim Stoeber of the University of Kent found this quest for perfectionism can be “self-oriented.” Meaning that you don't only have high expectations of yourself, you have “socially prescribed” the culture of your company with a zero tolerance for mistakes, or “other-oriented” your demanding expectations of others.
I work with numerous leaders and teams who proudly strive for perfection. They wear it as a badge of honor. In working with a professional services team they were self-congratulatory when the results of a team culture survey revealed they scored themselves off the charts in being perfect. This close-knit team has a reputation for delivering high quality work. For them, a “socially prescribed” culture of being perfect goes hand-in–hand with their successful track record in achieving results.
Our discussion turned sideways when I cautioned them that a high perfect score is actually doing more harm than good. Most in the room fell silent in disbelief and few scoffed at the notion that there is any downside to being infallible. Until, that is, we delved into the perils of perfection. We talked about what’s at risk with the relentless pursuit of perfection using a recent example of how they described preparing for a client meeting.
The client briefs them on an assignment. The assignment is handed off to a lower level team member to work on. The individual works furiously for two weeks to be ready for the client meeting. In an effort to have his work deemed “perfect” he waits until the day before the client meeting to review the presentation with his bosses. And this is when it unravels. Not surprising, the bosses have comments and ideas that need to be incorporated.
Now, that it’s crunch time, others are pulled in to help. It becomes an all hands on deck situation. The collective team scrambles well into the night to retool the presentation in order to make it perfect. They have a good client meeting but the team is exhausted and frustrated with how they spent the last 24 hours. This manic race to the finish is not unusual. And yet, there is no discussion on how to improve the process because it’s viewed as making the work perfect.
Until we examined this situation in more detail. I queried, “Does it have to be this way?” “Why does this continue to happen if it frustrates everyone?” Part of the problem is that they had yet to master how to provide productive work-in-progress feedback without judging the work against the perfect standard.
And that’s what this team collectively realized. Their current operating model resulted in good but not always great work and definitely not a culture of sharing nascent ideas. In fact, most people were reticent to share new ideas for fear of them being skewered.
They wanted an improved way of working that would allow for more open discussion, more spit balling of ideas and more productive feedback that will make the work better versus poking holes in what’s wrong at the eleventh hour. The aim is to make the end product perfect not the work being shared along the way.
Armed with this insight, a few members of the team went off on their own to create a new approach for how projects can move through the various levels of internal approval. Their solution was simple: work in progress would be shared at designated times throughout the process. At each meeting, it would be made very clear what the reviewer is to comment on and nothing more. The reviewer shares his or her comments and holds back any other remarks until asked.
After a two-week trial, this is what they learned:
- The work product improved because they were getting valuable input along the way.
- There was the opportunity to share sparks of ideas that the team could build on without being judged.
- There were no more late nights since all the key reviewers were involved along the way.
- People were less stressed the day before the client presentation and they used that time to ensure the presentation was polished and error free.
- The day of the presentation they were fresh and ready to go having had a good night's sleep.
By giving “being perfect” a new definition, this team improved their work product, enabled more collaboration and reduced stress.