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  • Tara Rethore

Perfect: Friend or Foe?

Asked to summarize the results of an employee engagement survey, a CHRO commented: “We are an A- organization. We want to be A+.”


Upon learning that she’d earned magna cum laude, this recent college graduate said: “I missed summa cum laude by just .2” (points in the cumulative GPA.)


Happily scanning the first physical copy of my published book, (Charting the Course: CEO Tools to Align Strategy & Operations), I immediately noticed the mistake on page 23.


Sound familiar?


The specific circumstances may differ. Yet, I’d bet that you’ve heard this kind of response from others or yourself. Each is a symptom of perfectionism – in an organization, at school, or as an individual.


Current research says perfectionism is on the rise. This makes sense: we’re routinely judged by where we finish, the distance from the mark. And perfectionist parents often breed perfectionist children (sorry, kids!), many of whom grow up to lead others. In some professions, meticulous attention to detail is required to save lives or prevent disaster. Yet this attention – and requisite training – does not have to mean perfection.


In my work as an executive and advising them, I’ve found that perfectionism at work is a double-edged sword. In fact, the research supports my observation. Sometimes, perfectionism spurs excellence. At other times, it impedes achievement.

Perfect is the enemy of done.

In all three examples, the achievement is noteworthy – both on its own and in the context of the objective. None is perfect. All further a larger objective (beyond perfection.) The book adds value for readers. The graduate earned high honors for academic achievement beyond most others in her class. Employees like working at the organization.

“Done” often gets you where you want to be.

On the flip side, pursuit of perfection raises the bar ever higher, often without declaring a meaningful end. Perhaps ironically, a culture of perfectionism fosters inherent dissatisfaction and a feeling of never being good enough. It also prevents achieving “done”. Searching for the perfect way to tell the story won’t get this article into your hands or spur new thinking generated by your feed forward suggestions and reactions to my ideas.


To cultivate the strengths of perfectionist tendencies, leaders can do three things:

  1. Communicate mistakes openly. Errors occur. Not talking about them or lashing out at those who make them just causes people to hide the mistakes. The case of Theranos illustrates what can happen when mistakes are deliberately buried or people are fired for acknowledging them. Make it a common practice to identify and analyze failure in a productive, forward-looking way.

  2. Make failure an opportunity. Sometimes, you can pinpoint the problem and adjust. At other times, leaders discover they simply didn’t know what they didn’t know at the start. By asking what it would take to be successful or avoid the failure next time, leaders create the opportunity to ask new questions or ask them at different times in the effort. Perhaps success is not within the existing capabilities of the team. Failure is an opportunity to take a different decision or approach.

  3. Focus on value. It’s possible that perfect (or the objective) isn’t worth the effort required to be successful. Identify where time and effort is best spent to deliver the most value. Truly understand what it means to achieve “good enough”. Spending more time reviewing and proofing my manuscript before publication would have delayed the book’s release without adding value for the reader.

Taken together, these three actions encourage appropriate experimentation and a willingness to take risks without having to be immediately great. Instead of demanding flawless execution, reward the pursuit of excellence.


Leaders decide: is perfect a friend or foe?