Eliminate Perfectionism at Work and Embrace Good Enough

CoachHub · 5 December 2022 · 7 min read

We all take pride in producing high-quality work. Quality over quantity, right? But what’s the cost of perfection? Voltaire said that perfect is the enemy of good. Studies show that constantly striving for perfection interferes with progress and production. It creates an inflexible, all-or-nothing mindset that leads to inefficiency. And it is linked to depression, burnout and higher mortality.

Three types of perfectionism

A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences between 1989 and 2016 by Thomas Curan and Andrew P. Hill between 1989 and 2016 uncovered three types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented perfectionists are internally motivated – they set impossibly high standards for themselves that they constantly strive to achieve.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionists are externally motivated – they perceive that they must fulfil impossible ideals for others to accept them.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists have unrealistic expectations for others to perform at impossibly high standards.

The pitfalls of perfectionism

The pursuit of perfection in our personal and work lives tends to set us up for failure. Flawlessness isn’t found in nature, and no matter how hard we strive, it’s ultimately unattainable. It can cause us to procrastinate, decrease our self-efficacy and prevent us from reaching success. It results in mental and physical health complications and can decrease our quality of life.

The side-effects of perfectionism include:

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Perfectionism and the Pareto Principle

Let’s look at Pareto’s Principle, or the 80/20 Rule, which states that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. While the ratio may vary – it could be 70/30 or 90/10 – the meaning is the same. A high percentage of our efforts are producing a very small percentage of our results. In the workplace, this concept translates to 20% of our workforce producing 80% of the work. As it applies to individuals, it means that within the first 20% of the work we put toward a task, we’ve completed 80% of the task. The remaining 80% of our efforts are spent perfecting our work. This doesn’t mean that we can reduce the time we put into a task by 80%, but it may mean that we’re overthinking or over-working a large percentage of the task. We’re wasting time on the minutia.

Perfectionism and the law of diminishing returns

Along the same lines, the law of diminishing returns states that the profits you gain from producing something get proportionally smaller the more time you spend on it. Once you have reached peak performance all the effort – every minute, every additional employee and every dollar – you put toward increasing efficiencies, improving production or perfecting your product reduces your returns. Eventually, you over-improve to the point of negative returns.

Research reveals that professors who exhibit high levels of perfectionism seldomly outperform their non-perfectionist colleagues.

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban explained why good enough is better than perfect when he said “Perfection is the enemy of profitability. Perfection is the enemy of success. You don’t need to be perfect because nobody is.”

law of diminishing returns

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Deliberate imperfection and the Pratfall’s Effect

Elliot Aaronson theorised that highly competent individuals are found to be more likeable when they blunder. He proved this theory – called Pratfall’s Effect – in an experiment in which college-age individuals evaluated the likeability of superior and average game show contestants before and after a slip up. The conjecture is that a superior is perceived as distant. A misstep humanises them and increases their attractiveness.

We see the Pratfall’s Effect in many cultures that embrace intentional imperfection. Craftsmen and artists do it. Navajo rug weavers include imperfections, called spirit lines, in their line work. Japanese artisans also include intentional imperfections, called wabi sabi, in their artwork. These appear as asymmetry, chips, nicks, simple or humble craftsmanship.

The idea behind deliberate imperfection isn’t about embracing the mediocre or celebrating sloppiness. Instead, it celebrates the natural world and our flawed humanity.

Intentional or not, businesses have been embracing imperfection on social media – or letting it slide – for years. It humanises a brand, and – in an epitome of Pratfall’s Effect – increases engagement. Rather than focus on perfecting any one product or message, we get close and then move on to the next, better thing.

The cult of imperfection

In 1937, Sir Robert Watson-Watt invented an early-warning radar system that detected German aircraft and relayed the critical tactical to the RAF. The system was far from perfect, but it helped to turn the tide of the war. Watson-Watt was able to invent and implement the radar in such a timely manner because of a principle he called “the cult of imperfection.” According to him, one must choose the third best solution because the second best comes too late, and the first best doesn’t exist.

Today, we can see businesses implementing the cult of imperfection. Software companies do it when they release a game or program, knowing they’ll have to update their product as bugs are discovered. While consumers may see this as less than ideal, if we were to hold out for perfection, the software may never be released. If this were to happen, technological evolution would never have occurred.

Embracing imperfection and moving on allows innovation to move forward. It’s what we should expect from ourselves and our peers as well.

How to recognize when perfection is holding you back

Hard work and high standards might set you apart from others, but they also drive others away. They get in the way of all that you can achieve and hold you back from real success. Learn to recognize when your goals are unachievable and you’re getting caught up in the little things.

Here are some signs that you might be a perfectionist:

  • You set unrealistic standards and unattainable goals
  • You get caught up in procrastination
  • You’re controlling
  • You micromanage
  • You’re critical
  • You’re motivated by fear of failure, or you motivate with fear
  • You have difficulty delegating
  • You react defensively to feedback or constructive criticism
  • You neglect to celebrate successes
  • You feel inadequate
  • You have a low sense of self-worth
  • You believe likeability is determined by achievement
  • You dwell on flaws and past mistakes
  • You avoid tasks or activities that might lead to failure
  • You’re unforgiving of mistakes

Tips and strategies to manage perfectionism

While it may seem unprofessional, or feel like settling, embracing good enough can improve your job performance and advance your career.

Try these tips and strategies to minimise your perfectionist tendencies and increase your efficiency at work:

Let go of your ego. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but fastidiousness can be prideful. Instead, embrace your imperfections with authenticity and vulnerability.

Start at the end. Set goals and plan backwards so you know how long a project will take and you can meet your deadlines.

Prioritise. Putting projects and tasks in order of importance helps to manage your time. When you’re on a schedule, you’re more aware when you’re spending too much time on small details.

Learn from mistakes. To paraphrase Edison, mistakes aren’t failures, they tell you how not to do something.

Celebrate success. Taking pride in the things you and your team have done well helps you embrace an optimistic mindset that will move your next project forward.

Cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is especially helpful if you tend to immerse in self-criticism or ruminate on the possibility of failure. Learn to recognize when you’re thinking in circles and interrupt that mindset.

Step back from roadblocks. Just like mindfulness, if you focus on the details for too long, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. There’s always a way around any obstacle.

Focus on the end-goal. When you’re overset with challenges and the possibility of failure, remind yourself that you will get through the project.

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Coaching can help you embrace imperfection at work

Perfection is unattainable – by you and your team. If you find yourself settling for nothing less than perfect, you may be holding your company and yourself back from real success. In the meantime, you are distancing yourself from your team and causing yourself undue stress. If you can’t manage to get out of your own way – or the way of your team – digital coaching can help you to let go of your perfectionist mindset.

At CoachHub, we’re committed to providing an excellent coaching framework for leaders and employees, that helps you to embrace good enough. So, you can reach your business goals faster and move on to the next project. Explore our website to see how our digital coaching services can help.

Call us on +44 (0) 20 3608 3083 email us (mail@coachhub.com) or contact us below for a demo.

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