How Perfectionism Obscures Progress
We are not out of the woods yet. While the Great Resignation may seem to have slowed in the last few months, the main anxieties leading employees to leave jobs are still felt.
On the back of the pandemic, employees left jobs when they felt undervalued, underpaid and unhappy with aimless and inflexible work. Many left 2021 feeling stagnant in their careers, burnt out from long, thankless hours and exhausted from the struggle to survive. When the job market changed, these people found new roles promising a better quality of life.
Six months into their new roles, the jury is still out on whether these promises have been fulfilled. Still, worrying trends suggest employers and their staff do not share the same vision of what their company aims to achieve.
If employers cannot accurately understand and remedy the cultural barriers preventing people from staying in their jobs, it is only a matter of time before the next wave of resignations.
The most harmful unchecked tendency of modern workplace culture is perfectionism. As the average age of burnout has fallen to 32, employees worry they work too much and don’t have time to recover.
The switch to remote work undoubtedly made this harder to manage; homeworkers did nearly twice as much unpaid overtime during the pandemic. The pressure to keep a job - reinforced by perfectionist cultures - has allowed expectations to spiral out of control, leaving exhausted employees seeking roles with a better work-life balance, even when it means taking a pay cut.
Leaders must ask: is this sustainable?
Our companies are like our children. We want the best possible care and investment in their success. Good is the aim, and perfection is the highest ‘good’. But in our bid to have the best possible teams doing the best possible work all of the time, we create workplace environments hostile to the people who run them.
“Perfection is the opposite of the good,” wrote Voltaire in 1770, an adaptation carried forward from the works of Montesquieu, Shakespeare, Confucius and Aristotle. Trade-offs are inevitable in any line of work, and insisting upon perfection will always come at the expense of some other measure of good. Allowing your employees to fret obsessively over minor details on an internal report, for instance, comes at the cost of time that could be spent doing something more valuable.
There is a rate of diminishing returns with these tasks: the more time you spend on one thing, the less value you add to it. Cultures should adapt to reflect this, perhaps by setting clear objectives for what tasks should achieve – and nothing more. Of course, there is a careful line to tread; leaders should reward creativity and hard work. But an effective meritocracy prioritises value over effort expended.
Allowing an effort-based culture to go unchecked creates inefficiency, then. This affects morale, stress and even honesty among colleagues. When it is better to be seen doing something than getting results, workplaces become hostile to transparency. One good outcome of the switch to remote work was the lesson that employees already know the kind of working environment that suits them best. A little trust goes a long way in building productive, self-motivated teams. Cultures that use flexibility - of hours or environment - and measure success by output do better than cultures that don’t.
On top of making employees more inefficient, unhappy and distrustful, perfectionism may make them brittle. In this era of rapid workplace change, employees need to be able to adapt to changing priorities and ways of working. Learning to let go will help teams make sense of a climate in flux. Fixating on the perfect product may blind you to customer feedback that will help you respond to new needs and build the product they want.
There are many dimensions to this problem, demanding a sense of urgency.
Research suggests that people of colour may be particularly vulnerable to perfectionism. In the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, scholars point to studies highlighting how children of different races gauge performance pressure from parents. They found that Black children may feel especially pressured to succeed due to racism and oppression experienced by their parents. Perfectionism is also correlated with gender, parental status, marital status and personality type variables – all things outside of the employee’s control.
Leaders cannot simply tell employees not to be perfectionists; they must offer and justify better alternatives, clarifying the benefits of good over perfect. They must establish processes to prioritise tasks and delegate work, creating sustainable workloads held to clear standards of quality.
The only way to really make progress is to listen to your staff. Foster an atmosphere of transparency by using office spaces where possible and, if not, social events where all are welcome. Regular catch-ups allow employees to speak freely about how they are managing their workload. Provide adequate resources for them to do their jobs in their contracted hours: a ‘fast-paced’ environment is an opportunity to grow and find purpose; an understaffed one is not.
There is no template for managing perfectionism in a changing world of work. As customs change and employees adapt to new ways of working, the most important thing a leader can do is to create an environment inclusive of the needs of all. Supported and in healthy environments, great teams produce great work. But great teams do not produce themselves.
Monica is an award-winning global speaker, business strategist and consultant, with experience as Coca-Cola’s Global Director of Strategy and Innovation. She founded Monica Motivates to impart skills to women and underrepresented entrepreneurs, and to help multinationals such as Microsoft and Santander with capacity-building and supplier...