Perfectionists Kill Progress
I have a huge admiration for self-disciplined, switched on people who put forth a strong effort every day. I very much appreciate people who hold themselves and the work they produce to a high standard, especially when that standard exceeds any reasonable expectations that others could place on that person.
I applaud all students who study with a goal of getting an A+ on everything they do. I am impressed by competitors who compete to win every race every time.
Committing yourself to a pursuit of excellence will serve you well no matter the cause.
A pursuit of perfection may be a different story and, if you consider yourself a perfectionist, I am going to ask you to reconsider whether or not you want to own that title. First, however, I would like to illustrate what I believe is the difference between a person in pursuit of excellence and a person who is pursuing perfection.
I believe that a pursuit of excellence equals achievement, progress, and leadership. Conversely, a pursuit of perfection equals delays, hindrance, and stagnation.
There are a few reasons for these contrasts, but let’s start with the concept of each. Excellence and the perception of it is an inclusive, broadly defined term that most people can easily identify with. Perfection, however, is a highly subjective, exclusive term that to most people represents an unattainable standard. In fact, the old adage of “I’m only human” is simply another way of saying that no one is perfect.
Some of the basic fundamentals of goal setting mandate that worthwhile goals must be measurable, attainable, and realistic. While you may have a slightly different idea of excellence than I do, it will be infinitely easier for us to find common ground in that definition and how we will achieve it than it will be for us to agree on what perfection means and how, if ever, we will achieve it.
It has been my experience that perfectionists use the fact that perfection is out of reach more as an excuse than as a way of defining progress. Perfectionists tend to miss deadlines because the product of their work isn’t “perfect” at the time the result is needed. Perfectionists tend to tinker with and often amend the nature of a project or its scope because they cannot achieve a perfect outcome. Additionally, perfectionists tend to be poor delegators because they believe that no one will do the work as well as they do nor will anyone else be as focused on perfection as they are.
The by-product of a perfectionist, especially when there are multiple perfectionists in an organizational setting, is that progress is slow at best because the focus is on an unrealistic standard for achievement instead of the effort needed to achieve.
Delays and an unwillingness to delegate ultimately will bring progress to a screeching halt. Not only are things not getting done, no one is learning anything because the perfectionists are too sidetracked chasing a mythical objective.
No matter what your standard is or how you define progress, there are things that you can control and things that you cannot control. Any coach or manager that is tasked with running any team or business predicated on multiple people subscribing to the same vision and core objectives will tell you that they are much more concerned with the effort than the result. Why? Because the players on the team and the employees of the business control the effort while the result is at least partly reliant on others, whether they are a rival team or a clientele.
The pursuit of excellence focuses on the effort and the journey you take to achieve your goals. The pursuit of perfection focuses on the end result and intrinsically creates obstacles that block your path to get there.
The pro-perfectionists out there will also tell you things like mistakes are unacceptable and that they will not accept anything less than 100% satisfaction from the people they serve. I respectfully disagree with this as well. Whether you accept mistakes or not, they are going to happen. I suggest that you categorize those mistakes in order to better understand them.
For example, if the mistake in question is a simple error in execution, while not desired, it should be easier to understand than, say, a mistake involving a lapse in judgment.
If a teller mistakenly gives you $20 less than you asked for because some new bills stuck together in her drawer, it is a mistake that must be corrected, but it is also easy to understand how it happened.
If, on the other hand, that same teller takes your withdrawal amount from your checking account instead of your savings account as requested and hopes that you won’t notice because there are 10 other people waiting in line and looking impatient, the mistake is unnecessary because it could have been completely avoided had the teller exercised common judgment and basic decision making skills.
As far as the client satisfaction is concerned, well that is about as subjective as the concept of perfection. If you ask ten people what satisfactory customer service means to them, you are likely to get ten different answers. Satisfaction, just like perfection, is a moving target and representative of a result that is likely never to be achieved despite the best intentions and highest quality effort.
As a business leader and a sports coach, I can speak from a first-hand perspective on both fronts. Given the choice between an employee or a player who labels themselves a perfectionist and an employee or player who will maximize their effort every day in an attempt to continue to progress and improve, I will take the person who is committed to the pursuit of excellence every single time.
Besides, nobody is perfect.