Lynne Cazaly is a facilitator and author of ish: The Problem with Our Pursuit of Perfection and the Life-Changing Practice of Good Enough. She says expecting high standards and excellent results from your staff is important. Pushing them to always strive for perfection, however, can be costly.
A more efficient model, she suggests, is often the one that celebrates near enough being good enough.
The problem with perfection
Perfection can’t be measured, which makes it unattainable. What that does is lure people into an endless pursuit of information or repeated re-jigging of a project to make it better, bigger, smarter until it fits the assumption that’s in their head.
“Perfectionism is on the rise,” Cazaly says. “People are overthinking and overworking. They’re not satisfied with the answers they’ve already got, or the progress already made.” A company with a culture of perfectionism can have higher absenteeism and lower retention rates as its people suffer burnout from excessive hours, skipping breaks, or feeling under pressure.
According to Cazaly’s research, there are links between perfectionist behaviours and health issues including anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, lowered self-esteem as well as migraines and asthma. From a workplace productivity perspective, it can delay outcomes, hamper decision-making, and affect attention span and engagement, potentially resulting in expensive reworks or damaged customer relations.
“There is a law of diminishing returns that says up to a certain point we get a good return on our effort, but there comes a tipping point where you start to waste time and it’s not delivering the quality you might think,” Cazaly says.
The warning signs
Look at the language being used across the business. If you or your team leaders are making vague statements such as ‘it has to be good’ or ‘it needs to be better’ without specifying your benchmarks for ‘good’ or ‘better’, people will make their own assumptions of what’s required.
Do you have employees handing you a 15-page report when five pages would have been fine? Are projects being held up by multiple revisions and decorative adjustments? Is the 10-minute presentation to the board really worth three weeks of investment? You need to ensure people are clear about your expectations.
Another clue there’s a perfectionist in your midst, Cazaly says, is when there’s reluctance to show early drafts of work. This can indicate a fear of failure. “If you see hesitation, delay, obfuscating or that dodging, hedging and weaving where they’re saying, ‘I’m still gathering information on that’ or ‘I’m not across it all yet’ then perfectionism alarm bells should be ringing,” Cazaly says.
Changing the culture
Cazaly is a big believer in the concept of ‘ish’. It’s a word that means almost, approximately, or near enough. For most scenarios close enough will do the job. Encourage people to save their A-game for those things that really matter.
If you think you’re harbouring a perfectionist culture in your organisation, you can start to change the mindset by establishing clear and consistent standards. Telling people to ‘lift their game’ without indicating the current state of play, or showing them the goalposts, is too ambiguous—and unfair. “This is when people head off down this road of trying to do something ‘amazing’, but they don’t actually know what they are going for,” Cazaly says.
So be clear with your language, and with your expectations. Get feedback from your team—do they feel the timeframe is realistic? And don’t be afraid to give people the space to make mistakes.
Habitual over-achievers may be reluctant to show off their work before they’re ready, Cazaly says. But it can be in everyone’s best interests to insist on regular check-ins so small course corrections can be done early in the game, before a project gets too out of proportion or off track.
She’s heard many stories from people who have been part of a perfectionist team. They describe feeling like a servant, rather than a team member. “This can be stifling for businesses, so companies who strive for excellence, rather than perfection, have a lot to gain,” Cazaly says. “They’ll get value delivered quicker to their clients and make some great productivity gains—and it’s better for the long-term health and wellbeing of their employees.”