Why it’s okay not to be perfect at work

Iit’s the World’s Tiredest Interview Question: What’s Your Biggest Weakness? And Rishi Sunak, one of two remaining candidates in the race to become British Prime Minister, gave the world’s most tired answer – perfectionism – when asked the question during an online rush earlier this month.

No respondent would answer this question with an unambiguous negative (“stupidity”, say, or “body odor”). Like all who have reached out to him before, Mr Sunak will have intended his answer to signal that his faults are virtues, particularly compared to the chaotic style of Boris Johnson’s outgoing government.

But this classic response is riskier than it once was. In Mr Sunak’s case, that’s because the prime minister’s job is largely about sorting through issues and making decisions at a relentless pace; even his proponents fear his deliberative style is problematic. More generally, perfectionism is increasingly out of step with how products are developed, employees are treated, and workforces are organized.

Start with product development. Many digital types adopt the concept of a minimum viable product (mvp), in which companies ship prototypes that can be refined, or even scrapped, based on feedback from early adopters. The essence of the mvp The approach is anti-perfectionism: don’t procrastinate, don’t waste time worrying about the smallest details, get your product into the hands of users and see how it works. Worrying about font sizes and cool features is a waste of time; the market will refine things for you, dispensing its judgments cumulatively and dispassionately.

The growing emphasis on employee well-being is another reason why perfectionism is out of fashion. The trait is on the rise: a study published in 2017 found that it rose steadily among American, British and Canadian students between 1989 and 2016 (before blaming Instagram, one of the main reasons is the increase in expectations parents). The tyranny of excessively high expectations is not good for you: A major review of the literature in 2016 concluded that perfectionism is associated with a range of mental health disorders, from depression and burnout to stress and to self-harm.

It doesn’t matter what kind of perfectionist someone is. Psychologists distinguish between a “self-oriented” version, in which people pressure themselves to function perfectly; an “other-oriented” type, in which people demand that their colleagues maintain the highest standards; and a “socially prescribed” version, in which employees think they will only get by if they meet the impossible expectations of those around them. People in the latter camp seem to be particularly prone to stress. A recent Italian study found that while having extremely high standards for your own performance was not a predictor of burnout, fear of making mistakes was.

Perfectionists can also damage team cohesion. In a 2020 study, Emily Kleszewski and Kathleen Otto of Philipps University of Marburg asked people to rate potential colleagues based on descriptions of their levels and categories of perfectionism. Perfectionists were considered less socially competent and less likeable than non-perfectionists. You don’t have to like your colleagues for them to be effective: in this same study, perfectionists were found to be more competent than non-perfectionists. But when more and more work is organized around small groups working together, it can help not to hate each other.

Now your inner curmudgeon just might be foaming in your mouth. Picky micro-managers are deeply annoying, but they’re nowhere near as bad as people with no standards. Demanding bosses can make the difference between good and great products: “It’ll be fine” isn’t the mantra that made Steve Jobs successful. Some jobs actively require perfectionism – for example, editors or drug regulators. And since when did being demanding become a health risk?

Fortunately, discouraging perfectionism doesn’t mean sacrificing high standards. In an article published last year, three University of Ottawa academics found that people who strive for excellence do better on tests of creative thinking than people who strive for perfection. Managers can explicitly define what counts as high quality work. Deadlines can prevent endless procrastination. Mr Sunak’s plea not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good came as he sat in front of a poster that had misspelled the word “campaign”. This took things too far.

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Learn more from Bartleby, our management and labor columnist:
Will “working from the hotel” prevail? (July 21)
How to deal with discomfort at work (July 14)
Read corporate culture from the outside (July 9)

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