When is “good enough,” Good Enough?

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.

Coach’s Questions:

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?

Advice for your younger self

How many times in life have you thought, “If I only knew then what I know now?”

When you think about your younger self, what do you remember about starting your career? Try, if you can, to remember how you felt. What was exciting? What did you worry about?

Think about your first “real” rung on the leadership ladder. What were your career expectations? What challenged you? What did you struggle with?

Take a few minutes, close your eyes and try to revisit what your younger self thought and felt. What specific details about your past goals and fears came to mind?

Take a piece of paper and jot down whatever comes to mind. (Pro tip: Keeping a journal to work through exercises like this and process events are proven to make you a better leader.)

Next, after you reflect on those early years, what career advice would you share with your younger self now that you’ve got some more experience? Again, write down what advice you have for your younger self.

When I did this exercise, I realized that:

  • I would remind myself to imagine that everyone around me is wanting to contribute their best – even on days where it doesn’t seem that way.
  • I would encourage myself to look more for jobs with people I admire, and less for jobs with impressive responsibilities.
  • I would tell myself to worry less about ‘getting ahead’ by other people’s measures and more about contributing something to the world that I’ll really be proud of.

After you write out what you’d tell your younger self, I have another question for you: Which advice have you followed or applied to your career?

If you haven’t actually taken your own advice, what stopped you? Could you implement it now?

Perhaps you have actually acted on all the advice you had for your younger self. If that’s the case, well done! But you’re not in the clear just yet.

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, then you’ll know that we strongly advocate that leaders add a COACH Approach to their leadership toolkit to build stronger teams.

The next time you have a team member who isn’t sure what to do with a situation, be curious. Ask them some questions to see if they can figure out what advice they have for themselves.

Many of us want to jump in and offer the solution, but encouraging people to think in this way allows them to be innovative, self-reliant, and engaged. They’ll feel more confident in their abilities and be more accountable for what they decide.

Another tool is to be a mentor – that means sharing your experiences, the good and the bad, the things you know now that you wish you’d known then – and allowing the other person to hear your experience and reflect on it, while deciding what bits they want to use for themselves. Mentoring isn’t telling someone to do this or do that, it’s sharing your own learnings for them to use (or not) as they wish.

Coach’s Questions:

What did you learn about your younger self through this exercise? What did you discover about who you are now as a leader? What would you share from your own experience? Where can you open up about things you’ve learned that were hard to learn? Who might benefit from this?

When high performers can’t play nice with others

The solution for handling a problem employee who is a poor performer might be a no-brainer: You involve HR, document and terminate their employment.

It’s not so easy, however, when you have a very difficult employee who is also one of your high performers. What do you do when someone who is invaluable to your business is also a major pain for everyone else around them?

Unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon. Sometimes it’s a certain ego or hubris that makes some talented individuals feel they can act with impunity. Other times, the prima donna mentality emerges after there were no consequences for poor behaviour as long as the superstar brought in revenue or business. And sometimes that high-performer is so focused on delivering the goals they are simply oblivious to how they’re being received by everyone else.

You’ve probably encountered the excuses:

Arrogant grandstander? But driven.

Demanding and never satisfied? Running through admins like water? But creative and innovative.

Uncooperative and insensitive to others on the team? But one of the best in the field.

Prone to outbursts and verbal abuse so that everyone is walking on eggshells? But always lands the big clients.

Managing high performers who can’t play nice with others can be a nightmare. Dealing with the fallout of their actions and their high maintenance ways can quickly monopolize your time as their leader. Odds are that many of these personalities are also the first to challenge your authority or undermine your decisions, which further complicates your role as it steals your time and attention away from other matters.

Here are some strategies leaders can use when their top talent’s intellect and ability is also a liability:

Have the difficult conversation. Sure, someone who is really bright ought to realize when they’re continually creating drama or upsetting others but if you as their manager don’t say anything, they can plead either ignorance or argue that they’ve never been corrected for it. The first step is for you to make that high performer know that while you value their contribution(s), that X or Y is ALSO part of the job and it’s something they need to work on. (Pro tip: Prepare for this difficult conversation carefully – read our tips and use our worksheet for having a difficult conversation remotely or otherwise.) Pay careful attention to how willing this top performer is to acknowledge first, that there is an area in which they could improve and second, how willing they are to take you up on support to do that. Remember, if this is truly your first conversation about the problem, they may need time to digest.

Draw some really firm boundaries. A large accounting firm in one of Canada’s northern territories had a very bright, very senior accountant with a very niche specialty who gained quite a reputation for his nasty demeanor with everyone from admin assistants and reception to clients — and the leadership team based elsewhere made excuses because he was a rare talent (and kept hiring new admins to deal with him!). As leaders, we have to decide what we absolutely will not tolerate. How many harassment complaints are too many? How many rude interactions are unacceptable? What’s the baseline of courtesy that should be extended to clients, colleagues and others? What sort of insulting behaviour should result in someone being asked to leave a team meeting? Give some thought to that, jot down some notes and make sure that the high performer is told that X, Y and Z cannot continue to happen — and then follow through. Sometimes people push when they think the boundaries exist only for others, and not for them. 

Be confident in your authority. As the leader, you can’t let a difficult personality rattle you. Stay calm and grounded no matter how they behave. That’s easier said than done but you might want to have a confidential discussion with a peer who has been through this before, or talk to a certified executive coach (whose conversations are always confidential). When talking to the problem employee, if they try to distract you from the issue, redirect the conversation. If they rant and rage, say that you’ll take the discussion up again when they’ve calmed down and then end the meeting (for now!). Trust in your executive presence and remember most of all why you’re doing this — to save the full team and to prevent the long-term losses that occur when a high performer with poor connection is allowed to continue. Remember that others on your team (whether they have told you, or not) will admire you addressing the problem and appreciate that you are reining in the high performer who gets out of control. Pro tip: it also might prevent some problems down the line when others realize you’re not a boss who can be bullied or walked on.

Be consistent going forward. If issues arise, deal with them right away, with a face-to-face conversation ideally (or video teleconference if necessary during the pandemic). Focus on the issue, not the person, and raise any ongoing issues for discussion. “Remember we talked about collaborating with marketing? There seems to be more tension.” Conversely, if you notice a concerted effort to change, make a point of sharing that you see and appreciate the progress. 

Assign projects carefully. Some high performers do best when they have a really challenging project to undertake that requires them to stretch — it’s when they’re bored that they stir up drama and get prickly. Then there are those who like a challenge, but lose those grace-filled interpersonal skills under pressure — so team projects may not be the best decision. Assess what’s going on and figure out how to mitigate any potential fallout based on what you’ve seen in the past.

Make sure performance reviews always document the good — and the bad. Too often the trouble areas are overlooked for superstars, which isn’t fair to them really (and it will be even more difficult if you eventually decide that you do need to build a case to terminate a talented troublemaker). In a situation where there are challenges, it’s important to review and provide feedback more frequently, perhaps even monthly or every quarter until you see a better long-term outcome emerging.

Be strategic with incentives. I remember hearing about one rock star asset manager who upset everyone around him constantly. He said things like, “My whole life I’ve been on winning teams, but I’m always the captain.” Any hint of an individual reward or bonus made him even more ruthless. The solution? An astute manager ensured that bonuses were structured for team achievements based on some 360-degree feedback.

Help to support the changes you want to see. You can find a good mentor for a superstar who is a little rough around the edges. This takes a bit of matchmaking ability, because it has to be the right fit, but when it works it can be life-changing. Alternately, consider whether there are any professional development opportunities for this member of your team that could help to boost the (usually softer) skills you want to see. Working with a coach, of course, can be helpful.  As well, launching the coaching with an emotional intelligence assessment tool can be eye-opening for the person. Build time into your schedule to meet regularly with this challenging high performer one-to-one so that they feel they have your attention and support.

Now, the big question is: When do you cut your losses?

Sometimes, no matter how much we as leaders work with someone, they aren’t willing to change. This is a much bigger problem than someone who needs support and mentoring or coaching to change.

You might ultimately decide that no matter how talented someone is, there are too many drawbacks — particularly in today’s world of remote work because we can recruit talent from anywhere around the globe. In some situations, you might conclude that it’s very well worth recruiting a slightly less talented or capable replacement who is a lot nicer to be around.

Making that decision may take some time. It might require that the leaders or the board members you report to need to buy-in to the idea (which is why careful documentation is important from the get-go).

If this is a real possibility, then be sure to reference that in the next Essential Conversation you have with the person (in the part where you state what is at stake).

Coach’s Questions:

Who do you know who fits the description of the very talented difficult employee? What has held you back from dealing with the situation? Given what we’ve offered, what will you do going forward?