17 April 2018

Getting to “good enough”: thoughts on perfectionism

NewCardigan's GLAM Blog Club provides helpful monthly writing prompts for for people who work in galleries, libraries, archives and museums. This month's theme is Control.

If you move into a supervisory or management role in libraries, you will probably at some stage participate in a training course requiring you to take a personality test like the Profiles Performance Indicator or the DisC profile. The rationale for this is that understanding your strengths and weaknesses will help you to become a more effective manager or leader.

I’ve done several of these tests and the results have been consistent in revealing (to no-one’s actual surprise, let alone my own) that I have strong perfectionist tendencies.

So what? you may be thinking. Isn’t everyone that works in libraries a bit of a perfectionist? Isn’t perfectionism one of those fake weaknesses that you wheel out in job interviews when in fact you are quite proud of your 110% attitude to anything and everything? Wouldn’t libraries be better if we were all a bit more perfectionist, not less? If we reduce our focus on quality even by a smidgen, isn’t that the beginning of the end, the start of the slippery slope, the end of the world as we know it…?

Well, no actually. Unless you are undertaking the proverbial brain surgery or rocket science in your library, perfectionism is probably more likely to affect you (and others around you) negatively not positively. In the long run it will probably stop you fulfilling your leadership potential. Here’s just some of the reasons why:

  • You will get less work done and miss deadlines because you will be overly focused on completing each task to an unnecessarily high standard.
  • You won’t understand fully what constitutes good performance. You'll forget that you are being judged as much, if not more, on your ability to deliver outcomes and to deliver those in a timely fashion. You'll also forget that your time - all the hours that you are spending on formatting not content, on sourcing that one perfect image for your slidedeck, on consulting just one more person to be totally thorough - is usually someone else’s money.
  • You will never be able to enjoy finishing things and will rarely stop to celebrate your milestones because you are only focused on how what you have done could have been so much better if we had just been able to [insert unhelpful stuff here]
  • You will annoy more senior staff by failing to deliver what they need and wasting their time as a result. You won't realise that you aren't actually helping when your manager asks you for a 2-page briefing paper and then you deliver a 10-page paper full of background material that makes the issue more complex for her not less, that raises more questions than she had before, and that doesn’t make any recommendations because you still haven’t analysed all the information in the universe that might be relevant.
  • You will apply the same high standards you apply to yourself to your colleagues and people you supervise. Unsurprisingly when people fail to live up to your unrealistic expectations you will be disappointed and judgmental. Congratulations - you will be well on your way to getting a reputation for being hyper-critical and demanding, and for micro-managing.
  • You will fail to delegate because deep down you don’t believe anyone else’s work will be up to scratch. Sadly, you probably won’t even be aware of how arrogant this is.
  • When you finally do delegate, you'll disempower your employees by pointlessly reworking things instead of coaching them to improve, providing clear guidance and then accepting what is produced.
  • You will get frustrated because things aren’t the way they should be, and you express your frustration inappropriately through anger, emotional outbursts, cynicism, sarcasm, or more passive-aggressive means.
  • Or you will turn those frustrations inward, burn yourself out and end up physically and or mentally unwell. All because of your inability to say This is good enough now. I’ve done as much as I need to. Now let it go.
I don’t know why I am the way I am. There is probably some deep reason that would require hundreds of hours of therapy to reveal that! What I do know is that I have found it almost impossible to address this on my own. I’m getting better at aiming for good-enough rather than perfection, but this is after years of support from a manager that knows me really well and has agreed to provide me with firm-but-caring feedback when she observes me falling into my old ways. She doesn’t let me get away with it and so as time goes on some new habits are slowly forming. I also have a colleague who inspires me with his ability to make quick decisions and move things along. I admire his attitude that all we can do is make the best decision with the information we have available, that sometimes we will make mistakes but mostly things will work out OK if trust in our own judgments, and more often than not we are better off taking action rather than going round in circles talking about things and never actually doing anything.

So if a personality test reveals that you are a perfectionist, don’t see it as a badge of honour. Take a few days (or a few years, in my case) to reflect on the unconstructive behaviours your perfectionism might be leading to in the workplace, and elsewhere too. Talk to your supervisor, your colleagues, a mentor, basically anyone who can help you by gently and repeatedly pointing out when you go beyond what’s really required, when what you’ve done is already good enough.