Pursuit of Perfection
By Peter L DeHaan
on the title of this article, StarTrek fans may be anticipating an
enlightened discourse on Seven of Nine’s unremitting pursuit of
Borg-style perfection. Alas, this is not the
case. (If you are disappointed, I recommend
watching, “The Omega Directive” – StarTrek Voyager, season 4,
episode 19 – and then consider the high cost of the unrestrained
pursuit of perfection.)
Instead, I am speaking of perfectionism in the workplace, among your
coworkers, and emanating from your staff. Do you
want a staff of perfectionists? Some
managers say “yes,” whereas others respond with a resounding “no.”
The informed answer is, “it all depends.”
that portion of the populace who are perfectionists, some are
blindly or proudly so. Others are self-aware of
possessing this characteristic and informed about it; I call them
recovering perfectionists. A self-aware or
recovering perfectionist understands this condition, knowing how to
tap into and celebrate the many strengths and benefits of pursuing
excellence. At the same time, they know to guard
against its limiting, self-defeating, and even paralyzing facets.
research on perfectionism reveals a host of ominous and debilitating
traits, starting with compulsiveness and going downhill from there.
However, informed or recovering perfectionists can tap into
the positive aspects of their natural tendencies when appropriate
and needed, that is, when it is to their advantage to do so.
At the same time, they can usually avoid being handicapped by
perfectionism’s alluring snares.
perfectionist, there are many traits which provide great value in
quality work: perfectionists tend to produce high quality
work. They take pleasure in excellence and
find satisfaction in a job well-done.
expectations: if the boss expects a handwritten report, the
perfectionist will type it; if achieving a 99% rating is
admirable, the purist will aim for 99.9 – and then 100!
Being above average is not good enough; being the best is
a self-imposed requirement.
extra mile: perfectionists often go the extra mile.
If a report needs to be five pages long, they will turn
in six. If a product needs to have three new
features, they will add a fourth and maybe a fifth.
If they set a record last month, they will strive to
better it this month. In sports, this
results in shooting free throws while the rest of the team
showers or taking 30 minutes of extra batting practice – every
standards: another trait is that perfectionists set high
standards, both for themselves and others.
As long as the standards are reasonably attainable, it is
acceptable, and even admirable, for the perfectionist to set a
bar high – for him or herself. (However,
foisting faultlessness on the others does little more than
establish the groundwork for future frustration, disappointment,
and conflict between the precision-minded and the rest of the
course, there are counterparts to these traits.
One is procrastination. It is said that the
perfectionist subconsciously reasons that the results of their work
will never be just right – no mater how much time is invested – so
why start? In fact, the project is often delayed
until the last possible moment, so that at least there is a
plausible excuse as to why it’s not perfect: “I didn’t have much
time to work on it!” Taking this to an extreme,
some perfectionists miss deadlines and blow past due dates – often
stressing about or agonizing over some trivial or irrelevant detail.
Another side-effect associated with perfectionism is problems making
quick decisions. Sometimes, they need to “sleep
on it” to be assured of the correctness of their judgment.
times decisions can be agonizingly difficult for them to
reach. This, most likely, is because they fear
reaching the wrong conclusion, that is, a less than perfect one.
The urge is to delay a pronouncement, while awaiting more
information, so that a proper and informed analysis can be
considered. Unfortunately, this mental paralysis
is seldom cured by amassing more data.
the years, I have often interviewed perfectionists during job
interviews. As it becomes more and more apparent
that I am talking to a perfectionist, I segue into a special
interview segment, just for them. “So,” I
inquire, “Do you consider yourself to be a perfectionist?”
responses fall into one of three categories. The
first one is shock or denial. If a person who
has just exhibited several perfectionist traits is taken aback at
the thought of being called one or disavows any connection
whatsoever, I judge them to either be disingenuous or lacking in
self-awareness. Neither are characteristics that
I seek in an employee.
second type of response to my perfectionist query, is unabashed
pride and total satisfaction in possessing this quality.
To make sure I am not rushing to a snap judgment, I give them
one last chance for redemption. “What,” I ask,
“do you see as the weaknesses of being a perfectionist?”
Occasionally, they will comprehend the importance of that
question, using an astute answer to move them from this category
over to category three. Usually, however, they
give me a blank stare, as if my inquiry was nonsensical, responding
that there is no downside or that they don’t understand what I am
asking. In similar fashion, I don’t want to work
with a perfectionist that has failed to realize the turmoil and
trouble they can produce by their proclivity for perfection
third type of perfectionist applicant smiles at this question and
begins to share their self-awareness about the shortcomings of how
their version of perfectionism is manifested.
They openly identify the less then admirable ways that it reveals
itself in them and often proceed to communicate how they guard
themselves and others from this tendency. This
is a person I want on my team. Yes, they may
require a bit more management effort from time to time, but doing so
is worth the extra energy as the results will be an employee who
produces quality work, frequently exceeds expectations, goes the
extra mile, and sets high standards for themselves. Isn’t
that who you want working in your organization, too?
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