I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist.
At times I have struggled to let go of something until it’s perfect, spending far too long labouring over every word and number at the expense of my sleep, my sanity and the emotions of those around me.
I beat myself up when I don’t do things as well as I would like, and frankly, there have been times in my professional life when I’ve treated others around me that same way when things weren’t perfect. It’s taken some time for me to understand that there are (many) times that good enough is, well, good enough.
Psychologist Harriet B. Braiker – who interestingly was the first in her field to publicly identify that women experience more and different types of stress than men – said, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”
That really resonated with me.
Excellence is a great goal, right? It’s outstanding or extremely good – whereas perfection is flawless, free of any defects.
Arguably, perfection is unattainable and, often, not even necessary. Expending emotional and physical energy in the pursuit of perfection might not be warranted if excellence is good enough.
I’ve done a lot of work on this over the years, and occasionally my own executive coach and I continue to work on accepting that good enough might be the preferable goal to driving myself (and those around me) crazy.
Leadership and the idea of “good enough”
In the textbook Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others, which I read while studying to become an executive coach, James Flaherty wrote:
The mood of organizations is, for the most part, shaped by the willingness of superiors to be satisfied.
That struck me as quite profound and incredibly accurate.
What do you think? Have you worked for leaders who have upbeat, supportive attitudes toward work done by their team members?
How does it feel to have someone acknowledge that you worked hard on something and applauded the excellent work rather than pointed out a few flaws to show it wasn’t perfect?
When team members feel safe to stretch and learn and grow, they gain confidence. Can you think of any organizations with a “can-do” tone and a culture of growth? Maybe you work somewhere or volunteer at an organization with that kind of culture.
If you’ve witnessed it, I encourage you to think about the leader: Were they willing to be satisfied? This might seem like an odd question but when you think about it, the reaction from someone who seeks perfection could be very different.
Maybe you’re even leading that kind of organization. What sorts of things are you comfortable letting go? What things would you coach your team members to improve? What is required for you to feel satisfied?
Some of us have probably worked, at one time or another, at companies where nothing was good enough or the scrutiny of work submitted felt challenging in a bad way. What’s the mood then? Awkward, angry or unhappy. Was the leader willing to be satisfied?
The best isn’t bad
Now, just to be clear: I’m not suggesting that sometimes we don’t need to strive for perfection.
When I’m traveling, for example, I like to think the pilot flying my plane, or the people at Boeing who built it, are aiming for perfection.
Similarly, I really hope that an anesthesiologist or surgeon is paying close attention to every detail, meticulous in technique and striving to be perfect.
But, how often is perfection necessary? When can we allow ourselves to be satisfied?
In his book, Flaherty also proposed “in our society and current culture, dissatisfaction is sometimes seen as a sign of sophistication or an unwillingness to compromise high standards.”
Can you think of anyone you know who is like that?
I’ve certainly had moments, when I was unwilling to “compromise my standards” while pushing myself and others beyond our abilities. Now, in hindsight, I can see the drawback to that pursuit of perfection instead of good enough.
As leaders, we need to know when to make the call.
When is good enough, good enough? How do you communicate that to your team? And what will it take for your colleagues to believe you? For your team to believe you? For you to believe you?