Perfection - It's all wrong

by Susanne Taylor (copyright 2016)

"Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is constant transformation." - Nia Peeples 


I see an alarming trend in the talented leaders I work with - a desire for perfection. It's the kind of perfection that is linked to words like "high performance", "quality", "excellent work". At a normal work pace, this might actually be helpful programming. However, as the speed of change increases, this type of desire is actually doing the opposite - it's grinding talented and passionate people down. 



It keeps leaders from challenging their team members to be explorers and to learn from their mistakes. Leaders who are not comfortable with allowing their people to experiment - thinking that they are protecting them from looking incompetent - are actually subconsciously training their people to distrust themselves.  I've seen it in very caring leaders who want all the presentations and official documents to come across their desk so they can "polish" and "perfect" them. 


The excuses I hear run the spectrum from Contempt: "She's sloppy, I don't want it to reflect on the team." to Control: "I have certain standards for this department, and just want to make sure we meet the high quality that everyone expects from us." to Caring: "He's really trying hard and just had a new addition to the family. I'm sure he's sleep deprived or something. I'm just helping for the moment."


It doesn't really matter WHAT the excuse is for wanting something the way YOU want it. It fosters self-doubt. It accelerates dependency. It increases exactly what the leader wants to avoid - mistakes. Yes, exactly. Just imagine what happens when we switch from typing on the computer with auto correct and spelling support to hand writing a letter. I don't know about you, but my hand writing and spelling has really suffered!


And instead of influencing, inspiring, and strategizing - the leader takes on more and more operational work with the misconception that they HAVE to - or things will get worse.  This means they are at the office until 9pm or sending emails at ungodly hours. 


Sooner or later the recognition hits - this is not sustainable. But how does one get out of this pattern?


Luckily, there's a way to re-focus this "will to be the best" to something MORE productive.  We call it: vulnerability.

Brene Brown calls it "the gift of imperfection."


“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”  - Brene Brown 


STEP 1 : Uncouple WHO you are from WHAT you do.

Many people become very connected to their work. It becomes their identity. I'm a scientist. I'm a Sales guy. I'm a global leader. Those are roles, titles, functions with set expectations within a context or specific organisational culture.

WHO you are is much more dynamic, complex and unique. You can get a better feel for clarifying what you do by focusing on the action words in your answer to , "what do you do?" Try it.


STEP 2: Re-discover WHO you are.

Some leaders are so far down the "do" path, they've become a little lost. Luckily, it's something that reflection and some coaching can re-focus.  There are lots of exercises that you can do to re-connect with your core values. (I personally love to use images.) If you start with a clear question, for example "Who am I?" and then do some speed writing (put your pen on paper and write continuously for 3 minutes) you'll get to an initial definition. It's also deeply connected to what you desire. Notice words that keep coming up.


STEP 3: Ask yourself what you really WANT.

This is one where some people may have to peel back layers of protection. It's like an onion. You know you're getting somewhere if you cry. At this step it's vital to have neutral and safe support - a coach or very trusted peer who can safely hold the space for you to do some uncomfortable work. This is the part that Brene Brown refers to above as, "laying down the shield."


STEP 4: Give yourself a moment. Reflect.

This is the step that many leaders will want to rush past - there's no time! I have so much pressure! However, by investing a day - or a weekend - to let things roll around in your head, or sit unconsciously - it gives you a chance to anchor and crystalize. You can check, revisit, take notice and consciously separate WHO you are from WHAT you do.


STEP 5: Baby steps. Take an immediate step to chose another action.

When changing a deep set behavior pattern, it's crucial to replace the old pattern with a new one as soon as possible. Perfectionism is a habit of thought. So start there. Consciously chose to let go. Challenge your team members at the beginning of the week to catch you "perfecting" things. Have an open discussion about why it's important that they own their mistakes and learn from them. (This doesn't mean a lecture, but ask them what they think this looks like - and perhaps try to find and align on a BEST EXAMPLE of this for the team.)


This is a simple strategy to a complex issue. A first step. However, I'd much rather see people who are driven by their passion to explore and evolve. Embracing imperfection is self-sustaining practice and generates it's own power. Just imagine what people could realize and manifest in the world with all that energy?!


What would you rather have more than perfection?


Some further inspiration and support: