This is Part V of a six-part series about leadership for engineers preparing for their first professional leadership role.
Hi, I’m Chris and I’m a recovering perfectionist. It all started when, well, when I was a young child. Blame it on genetics, but I’m afflicted with the ‘perfectionist-gene’; the necessity for every action, every event, and every aspect to be just…perfect.
It’s come in handy in some cases, like developing a logistics plan with numerous stakeholders, target dates, and high stakes outcomes or putting on a 400-plus person multi-national event with a lot of senior leaders. Perfection, or a close facsimile of it, is necessary in some cases. However, it isn’t in most cases.
For those with a perfectionist streak running in them, entering the engineering profession simply reinforces their natural slant towards an error-free life. This was the case for me, and then I added a career in the military on top of it and my preference for perfection was locked
Unfortunately, while there’s a time and place for perfection it doesn’t apply to all situations and at all times.
For instance, when leading a team, demanding perfection both explicitly and implicitly on every task is a recipe for disaster. While we can design perfection into a manufactured item and apply Six-Sigma and Lean concepts to ensure perfection in a product or a process, we can’t expect perfection in every team. Why?
Because to err is to be human.
Recovering from Perfection Through Process and Habit
Moving through and beyond perfection won’t occur with simple mantra’s like “learn to accept mistakes”.
Others offer it as advice, however, it isn’t helpful to the person just starting out. It wasn’t until several years into my professional leadership journey that I developed the habit of accepting mistakes. Out of the chute, accepting mistakes is akin to admitting you, or your team, are less than capable.
For the perfectionist, accepting less than capable isn’t acceptable. And telling a perfectionist to “accept mistakes” is a waste of breath.
I offer a different strategy. This one’s steeped in assessing risk and it allows a person to determine which tasks, events, or situations they can accept less than 100%. Over time, you build a habit of assessing tasks on their own merit and eventually, develop the intuition to immediately know which ones require perfection and which ones don’t.
- Employ Operational Risk Management (ORM). Not familiar with Operational Risk Management? It’s a process used in the military that includes risk assessment, risk decision-making, and implementation of risk controls resulting in acceptance, mitigation or avoidance of the risk. You likely aren’t making life-and-death decisions, but you can apply the same process to your project team’s tasks and bin them into categories of accepting, mitigating or avoiding.
- Rank Order Tasks from Perfect to -n. Look at your tasks. You can either use the categories from above, or rank order them from 1-to-n in order of most important to be perfect to less important to be perfect. Then 80/20 them. That is, identify the 20% of those tasks that must be absolutely perfect and focus your perfection on those. You then choose to accept less-than-perfect on the other 80%. Over time, you’ll find that the percentage of tasks you need to deliver with 100% perfection is even less than 20% of what you do.
- Openly Discuss Your Expectations with Your Team. Expecting perfection from yourself all the time leads to stress. Expecting perfection from your team all the time will lead to anxiety and loathing of you. Think back to an experience where a boss, teacher, or coach expected perfection from you. Where you stressed? Did it cause some level of loathing towards the person demanding perfection? More importantly, did it result in perfection as desired? Demanding full-time perfection may deliver desired results initially, but over time the drive for perfection in every task leads to mistakes. The mistakes will cause anxiety levels to increase and the loathing to begin. If you are a perfectionist, come clean with your team and tell them this, and then let them know that you intend to apply a process for determining which tasks are the vital few that must be perfect. Your team will embrace your openness and anxiety levels will drop. And you may even see more perfection than you expected.
- Enlist a Perfectionist Spotter. Have one of your team members be an accountability partner by spotting instances where your inner-perfectionist is shining through. For those of us who are lifelong perfectionists, it’s a way of life. This means that we can be demanding perfection even when we don’t mean to be demanding perfection. It might come through in the way we review a subordinate’s work or the comments we give to a team member when they make a mistake. With someone watching you, they can let you know when your inner-perfectionist is coming out so you can catch yourself in the act.
- Accept “Some”, Not “All-or-Nothing”. The perfectionist mind-set is zero-sum. A completed task is either “perfect” or “not-perfect”. This binary approach to outcomes is limiting, since there is an infinite number of results that can occur. Instead, cultivate the mindset of “some” versus “all-or-nothing”. There can be ‘some’ level of perfection in a task, opening the door for less-than-perfect.
Letting go of perfection isn’t a negative reflection on you or anyone else. It doesn’t mean that you willing to accept half-measures or that you’re not effective. What letting go of perfection is, is a realization that not everything in the world must be perfect; which is good, because not everything in the world is perfect. When you begin recovering from perfection you begin to free-up time, you begin to demand less from yourself and your team, and you begin to have the resources to focus on the truly important tasks that must be perfect.
I would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share on why rest and relaxation are vital for a successful engineering career.
“To err is human; to admit it, superhuman.” ~ Doug Larson
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below on being a perfectionist in your Engineering Career.
To your success,
Christian Knutson, PE, PMP
Engineering Management Institute