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The flipside of perfectionism

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Steve BarryIt can be the enemy of company performance and growth.

Steve Barry is Director of Strategic Marketing at Forum Corporation, a Boston-based work-place learning company which helps senior business leaders execute their company strategies through people. His work involves translating major research studies into new leadership development programmes.

He writes here about how the trait of perfectionism can be a major impediment as companies try to encourage risk taking as the most important factor in innovation.


It’s true that perfectionists are often high achievers. But these people can paradoxically struggle in organizations with lofty growth targets operating in fast-moving, complex, and ambiguous environments. In fact, the next time you are interviewing an admitted perfectionist, think long and hard before hiring that person. Try to determine if the individual's perfectionism would be the wrong fit for your company. Here are three reasons why it’s crucial to find out.

Perfectionism can be an innovation killer

Innovative companies have been shown to have significantly higher revenue growth than non-innovative peers. Where ambiguity and uncertainty abound, learning from failure is a critical way that top-performing organizations drive innovation and growth. For example, in recent research on leading growth, top-performing organic growth leaders practiced learning from failure three times as often as others. Sir Ken Robinson, a noted expert on creativity and innovation, has shed light on why learning from experience is both critical and rare. "If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. By the time we become adults we are afraid to be wrong. We run our companies this way. We stigmatize mistakes and as a result we are educating people out of their creative capacities." If people are punished, monetarily or even verbally, for trying something new and failing, you can bet that won’t happen again. On the other hand, recent research has shown that climate (particularly one that encourages risk taking) is the most important factor in innovation. Perfectionism can lead to the polar opposite of an innovative climate, and can be an absolute killer to innovation – and to growth.

The control mind-set can derail strategic alliances

Innovation killer that it is, perfectionism can also be an obstacle to another key growth vehicle: strategic alliances. Perfectionism stems from a mind-set of control. Alliances, like any relationship, will often fail if one partner feels the need to be in control. Power and control, perceived and otherwise, must be shared equally. Alliances are also like personal relationships in that they don’t always run smoothly at first. Logistical hiccups are common at the outset. Perfectionists’ need for flawlessness could cause a lack of patience and trust at this crucial time in the relationship.

Perfectionism puts the brakes on speed and agility

A recent McKinsey study showed that 91 per cent of executives believe that the importance of agility and speed has increased in the past 5 years. Speed and agility allow companies to sense and proactively take advantage of market, consumer, and regulatory shifts before competitors, creating temporary competitive advantage. Perfectionism puts the brakes on such speed. Perfectionists delay until they are 100 per cent ready, when 80 per cent is sometimes all that is needed.

Also, perfectionists compromise speed in that they are not comfortable with delegation, or with freeing up decision-making ability closer to the customer where it often needs to be. Research has shown that among the top barriers to an organization’s speed and agility are an overly complex and slow decision-making process, employees’ lacking sense of purpose or commitment, a tendency to refer decisions to higher levels in the organization, and an inclination to overanalyze before making a decision. When employees are not comfortable making the decisions they need to, opportunities are missed, and employees tune out. In addition, perfectionism can lead to an over-analysis of a situation or reluctance to make a decision with incomplete data.

"If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original."

What can you do as a leader?

Beyond improving delegation skills, or moving on initiatives at 80 per cent perceived readiness instead of 100 per cent, there are other things you can do to leap over this growth barrier. For example:

  • Reassess the metrics with which you measure the performance of your function. Remember that your function or group does not operate in isolation. The reality is that you are part of a larger value chain. Your group’s best practice guidelines may mean absolutely nothing to the end customer. In fact, by using precious time and resources to achieve perfection in these practices, you may be sub-optimizing organizational performance and customer value.
  • Seek feedback. Creating a transparent, "okay to fail" climate is crucial. Research has shown that this climate begins with the manager’s attitude: Those who seek feedback are more likely to build this type of climate. If managers have a perfectionist attitude, others become self-conscious. Make it okay for people to ask for feedback by being a role model for it.
  • Define what failure will, and will not, be tolerated. For example, let it be known that if someone has a great idea that hasn’t been tried before, he or she will not be punished if it fails. Do not, however, tolerate known errors in established processes that obstruct flawless execution.
  • Create feedback mechanisms. These should enable structured follow-through of behavioural learning. Cognitive understanding isn’t enough. Practice, feedback, and coaching, painful as they may be, are critical in sustaining behaviour change.
  • In an alliance situation, let go of the control mind-set. Focus instead on relationship-building behaviours.The idea that one can possibly know everything there is to know, and be perfect, was antiquated long ago.

However, as organizations and individuals become more and more specialized, the search for perfection within a specialized niche can become a trap. Information, ideas, and relationships exist outside of this narrow search, all of which can lead to tremendous personal and organizational growth. If you let it happen.

French novelist Gustave Flaubert noted in the 19th century that perfection is the enemy of good. As we reflect on this quote in the 21st century, we see that perfection is the enemy of growth as well.

November 2010.