Why Perfectionism Is The Number One Enemy Of Teamwork

Shannon Waller
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The Cost Of Perfection

As originally published on Forbes.com

A lot of people consider themselves perfectionists, and they take a perverse pride in holding themselves and others to almost impossibly high standards. If this were a winning strategy, I’d be all for it, but it’s not. It’s a teamwork killer; it slows down productivity, and hijacks other people’s creativity.

I’m all for high standards. In fact, I can be pretty picky. Perfectionism is different. It’s holding yourself and others to an unattainable ideal and not recognizing the progress that’s been made.

We all have ideals. We have ideals about our spouses, our physical appearance, world politics, our children and our careers, among others.

The challenge is that as soon as we get close to hitting our ideals, they move. It’s like trying to get to the horizon: You can never get there. As soon as you get close, even if you run really fast, it moves farther ahead.

Ideals operate exactly the same way. World peace, a healthy body, our ideal career — the reality never quite matches our vision.

Don’t get me wrong; we need ideals. They help us set goals, motivate ourselves and stay strong in the face of opposition. The problem happens when we measure ourselves against our ideals. Regardless of how far you’ve come, if you’re only looking at the ideal, you’re always going to feel that you’re falling short of where you think you should be.

This leads to feeling pessimistic about the future. It wouldn’t be so bad if it only impacted you, but it doesn’t. It impacts everyone with whom you work.

Perfectionism leads to procrastination.

One teamwork issue occurs when we’re uncertain we can do something perfectly, so we put it off. We procrastinate and make up excuses because we don’t know enough yet and need to do more research.

Or, we do a decent first version of our project in a couple of hours, put it aside for a few days, look at it again, think it’s terrible, rewrite it and put it aside again for a week. Before we know, it’s been a few weeks, and no one else has had a chance to contribute.

If other people are waiting on your work, this holds everyone back. When we delay doing our part, it doesn’t give other team members the time or opportunity to fully use their talents.

When we recognize that high quality is a team effort, we can do our best work and trust that our team has our back and will make us look good.

Perfectionism leads to criticism.

If nothing is ever good enough, it makes for a very critical mindset. Not only are you critical of yourself, but when you’re looking through this lens, you’re going to be very critical of other people as well.

Again, if this were a successful strategy, I’d be all for it. However, teamwork thrives in an atmosphere of trust, or as Google identified as the No. 1 factor in its extensive study of team effectiveness, psychological safety:

“Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

If people don’t feel safe expressing new, different or not-fully-formed ideas or opinions, then your teamwork, innovation and risk-taking will suffer. Everyone on your team will be playing defense, not offense. If you’re committed to being part of a winning team, you’ll need to change your strategy.

So how do we shift out of perfectionism and improve our teamwork?

Make “progress, not perfection” your new motto.

Shifting your mindset from one of perfectionism to progress will take some effort. It’s like a track that gets worn in the mud: We get stuck in a perfectionism rut and need to be proactive to find a new way of operating. Start by measuring backward:

1. Start with The Positive Focus.

In all of my meetings with team members and clients, I start with a quick exercise called The Positive Focus.

The Positive Focus is simply a reflection of progress and what people are happy about. Regardless of what the meeting is about, when people start from a mindset of what’s working for them, they’re in a better place to contribute and solve problems.

2. Make it a habit.

Every night before you go to sleep, write down the three most important things you’ve accomplished that day, regardless of what you’d planned to do, and the three things you want to accomplish tomorrow. I love doing this because it sets me up for a good night’s sleep and a productive next day!

Every Monday morning, write down up to 10 business and 10 personal achievements from the previous week. Doing this helps you know that you’re making progress in both of the key areas of your life and that you’re not getting out of balance with one or the other.

3. Practice the 80% Approach.

One of the fastest ways to bypass perfectionism and procrastination with your team is to practice the 80% Approach.

Let yourself and everyone know that what you’re expecting is 80%, not 100%. There’s something incredibly liberating about handing off a piece of work to a colleague saying, “This is my best 80%.” Saying this gives them permission to contribute their creativity and insight. If I hand some work over and say, “This is perfect. I’m sure you won’t have much to do,” and they don’t agree, I’ve set myself up for a teamwork problem because they now have to deal with my ego and perfectionism.

It’s time to outgrow our relationship with perfectionism and realize that our teamwork, creativity, efficiency and productivity will benefit more by focusing on progress and trust.