April 15, 2013
Perfectionism: The Other Side of The Innovation ‘Coin’

This post was written by Nancy S. Alrichs, strategic account manager for FlashPoint. Based in Indianapolis, FlashPoint is a talent management consulting firm that was founded in 2002 by Indiana Humanities board member Krista Skidmore and Andrea Cranfill.


It is hard to imagine perfection as the enemy of innovation, but it is! If you have ever managed a perfectionist – someone who gives equal detail-oriented effort to all things and thus gets fewer things done, misses deadlines, and may be critical of others who do not follow to ‘the rules’ – you know how this trait can be a two-edged sword.

Today’s competitive marketplace demands both perfection and innovation. Todayss leaders must harness the positive qualities of perfectionism as they coach their perfectionist staffers.

The pressure is on organizations to innovate in every position. Since no organization will ever again have ‘enough’ staff, each staff member must consistently perform at a high level on a daily basis. High-level performance requires you to help your perfectionist do five things:

1. Understand that ‘best’ may not be the most effective. Sometimes ‘good enough’ is as valuable as perfect in our deadline-laden work week. Spending too much time on minutiae or ‘prettying up’ the data can derail not only our own productivity but the productivity of others who depend on us for timely reports or information.

2. Prioritize the work. In most jobs today it is impossible to get everything done. As a result, each employee needs to assess which tasks have the greatest value, will make the greatest impact, will result in repeat customers, etc. It is good to remind employees that 80 percent of their results come from 20 percent of their efforts.

3. Delegate as appropriate. Remind the perfectionist that giving others new assignments is one of the best tools for developing their skills. Cross-training in specific tasks also prepares the department for vacations, illnesses, or staff departures. Once a perfectionist recognizes that getting everything done is not realistic, work with him or her to determine what to delegate and to whom. Then coach him or her to allow the coworker some creative latitude in completing the assignment.

4. Stay cool in the face of deadlines. Stress can become a vicious circle for perfectionists: the more deadlines they face, the more stressed they become, the less productive they are, the more the deadlines pile up, etc. Stress management techniques need to be part of every employee’s repertoire: take a short break and walk around the building, consider refilling that cup with cold water over more coffee, do deep breathing exercises, take a ‘power nap,’ listen to music, etc.

5. Do the best you can within time and budget constraints. Fear of being criticized for anything less than perfection motivates the perfectionist to ‘stay in the weeds’ of one assignment even in the face of more projects that need to be completed. The perfectionist needs a new mantra: perfection is rarely realistic or expected. Good enough is often as valuable as perfect.

Today there is great pressure to deliver both innovative products or services and high-quality results. Leaders know that detail-orientation, high standards, and diligence are valuable competencies in the competition for quality, but they can be disruptive and cause stress if applied to all tasks equally, all day long. In order to move a perfectionist staff member to a more productive level that enables him or her as well as others in the department to not only complete projects well but also innovate appropriately, leaders must manage to the strengths of the employee while coaching him or her to develop additional skills.

Nancy S. Ahlrichs, SPHR, CDE, is Strategic Account Manager for FlashPoint and author of Manager of Choice: Five Competencies for Cultivating Top Talent.

In April and May, Indiana Humanities is exploring the topic of “innovation,” as part of its Spirit of Competition theme.

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