The Perfectionist Organisation
I hear Execs saying with pride “Our organisation strives for perfection”, or “We are a perfectionist organisation.” My heart sinks a little. Perfectionist cultures create a catch-22* situation. The perfectionist culture appears to be hard working and achievement-focused, but is damaging to performance and profits across the board. The challenge in working with a Perfectionist Culture is that perfectionists find it very difficult if not impossible to see the limitations of their approach.
Perfectionist Cultures value persistence, hard work and the appearance of competence on the part of its members. Outwardly this seems great. It is true that some orientation in this direction can be useful (eg, when reliability is critical). But it is different when the balance changes. When too much emphasis is placed on these traits, organisations can lose sight of overall goals, get lost in the detail, and develop symptoms of strain/stress.
You can read more about the traits of Perfectionists in our article here.
6 Ways to Recognise a Perfectionist Culture
A perfectionist culture is created when one or more of the top Leaders promulgates or tolerates perfectionist behaviour. The culture can be strong in the whole organisation or can be strongest in one or more sections or divisions. You can recognise the culture
A Perfectionist Culture has low morale.
A range of interventions have not overcome the problem. Few enjoy their work or get a lot of satisfaction from it. Turnover is higher than average. People describe feeling like a servant rather than a team member.
A Perfectionist Culture is a Siloed Culture.
Communication is extremely stilted. Collaboration between departments is low and can be conflictual. There is a lack of coherence between the systems, processes and approaches of departments. Common goals are either missing or unclear. Each silo strives to be the best through its perception of perfection and without thought of the overall business, its strategy or goals.
A Perfectionist Culture fails to reach their performance potential.
Individual managers can be good planners, but the plans can fail because no-one else has a stake or ownership in the ideas or implementation. Perfectionist managers believe so strongly in the perfection of their own ideas, and therefore fail to engage others through collaboration and cooperation. They do not like to share early drafts of work with others due to fear of failure. You will experience hesitation, delay, obfuscating or dodging, hedging and weaving – they will say, ‘I’m still gathering information on that’ or ‘I’m not across it all yet.’
As a result, the culture tends to be less motivating, provide less scope for learning and development, focus more on process compliance than outcomes and provide less opportunity for creative and novel thinking.
A Perfectionist Culture is a Culture of Blame and Guilt.
Managers set their perception of perfection as the standard/benchmark and consider other ideas and standards as substandard. This generates a Blame Culture (“it is their approach at fault, not ours”), and managers hold individuals responsible for failing to reach the ambitious and non-consensual goals of their leaders. Their approach is to make others feel guilty for failures and mishaps. Indeed it can encourage people to give an appearance of working hard, hide mistakes and avoid blame.
A Perfectionist Culture is a Static Culture.
It doesn’t grow, develop or change with the times. Perfectionist managers have difficulty accepting feedback, and this creates further communication problems and a static organisation.
A Perfectionist Culture embeds impossible expectations in the culture.
Burnout and stress-related diseases are common. Every person is expected to:
- appear to work long hours
- appear to be overly busy
- set and work on unrealistically high goals
- be precise, even when it is not necessary from a business perspective
- do things perfectly and never make a mistake – failure is not an option
- keep on top of every matter
- personally take care of every detail.
Why Morale is Low and Performance Targets are Not Realised
The key element at the heart of motivation is the pursuit of one’s own goals, using traits, approaches and methods that give a sense of satisfaction. People work the hardest on solutions that they have contributed to or wholly designed, and with ideas for which they feel at least some ownership. The type of goal that gives the most satisfaction varies from person to person, but the general concept of goal pursuit as a key motivating factor is consistently applicable.
The goal setting style of Perfectionists primarily excludes collaboration, delegation and cooperation. The Perfectionist Manager sets high and exorbitant goals but seldom accomplishes them. The emphasis is on looking good, not on performing well. They can plan well but do not enlist the support or involvement of others. Therefore it is extremely difficult to get traction on goals. The monthly reporting cycle becomes a repetition of excuses and finger pointing.
Also, recall that Perfectionist executives are not receptive to others’ ideas or approaches. The self-interest mentality means that they are missing out on the expertise and experience of others. Simply adopting a participative management style will not solve the issue. The perfectionist style is embedded too deeply in the exec’s thought processes and habitual working styles. Thus the collective motivation of the entire organisation can be at stake. If a key division manager, for example, is stifling motivation then the problem becomes very serious. However, it tends to remain hidden while other solutions are pursued, generally with little success.
Firstly, do not expect Perfectionists to fix a Perfectionist Culture. The change is more successful when it is led by a team from outside. The change management program will involve coaching and developing Perfectionist Leaders, careful recruiting for key positions, strong guidance and role modelling, and setting established behavioural norms for staff. Our extended program for working with PC’s as we call them includes gaining a clear picture of the impact on staff through interviews, surveys and metrics. This guides the formation of our program and also forms the progress benchmark as the culture once more breathes, grows and expands.
The mantra of reforming Perfectionist Cultures can be “Good enough is the new perfect.” A similar mantra is “3/4 baked.” This means the special moment in time or development where an idea has significant shape and is about 75% of being good enough. When work is released at this stage, others can help to polish the work. This collaborative approach makes the end result far more powerful than the work of one person could ever be. Collaboration and feedback becomes a normal part of the new culture.
J. Clayton Lafferty and Lorraine F. Lafferty wrote in their book Perfectionism: A Sure Cure for Happiness that “Perfectionism is an illusion and its reality is unhappiness.”
* The definition of a catch–22 is a situation in which there is no good solution or resolution possible because of the way in which the factors of the solution relate to each other.
Ganga Harvey consults and coaches in the areas of Leadership, Strategic Management and Change Management and has guided many organisations to significantly higher levels of performance. She is a Solutions Partner with Harrison Assessments, providing deep insights into your organisation.
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