At NextGen Orgs, we believe that the fear of messing up or failing is at the root of most of the problems facing American companies today. Low employee engagement, a lack of innovation, and the inability to scale past an inflection point are all rooted in this disease of perfectionism, just to name a few.
It’s a cultural problem, one of the symptoms of the patriarchy and white supremacy Before you freak out at the words I just used, take a breath. Calm down, I’m not blaming anyone who’s reading this. Yet I can’t deny that our forefathers built this great country to benefit white men disproportionately to anyone else. It’s not our fault, but it’s our responsibility to do our part in making it better.
Perfectionism hurts everyone, as do all the other symptoms of a culture steeped in white supremacy. To create a shared understanding of what I mean by perfectionism, I’ll share the following characteristics (credit to www.DismantlingRacism.org):
- little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
- more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate
- or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them
- mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are — mistakes
- making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
- little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes
- tendency to identify what is wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what is right
Does any of this sound familiar? The most egregious symptom, in my opinion, is when “making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong.” When this happens, toxic shame is guaranteed to make an appearance. Nobody wins when shame is in the house. On the off chance you haven’t seen Dr. Brene Brown’s TED talk on shame, click here. Then come on back, promise?
Here’s the sad/scary/horrible thing: none of this starts at work. This is why the larger cultural context is so important. How many of us grew up in families where the above symptoms were prevalent? Far too many, is my guess. Either that or my family was unusually dysfunctional (ok, fair enough… but I know I’m not alone).
OK, so now that I’ve bummed you out, what’s the antidote? The good news is that there are some things you can to dismantle perfectionism in your organization’s culture:
- Create a culture that actively embraces mistakes and failures. Instead of trying to avoid them, we need to learn how to be more resilient when they happen. We need to learn how to be more brave and actively encourage mistakes (the smart ones and the innocent ones, not the sloppy ones). We need to embrace the lessons in the failures instead of hiding them or beating ourselves up over them.
- Separate the human from the error. Humans who make mistakes aren’t bad, we’re human. Learning how to be more emotionally intelligent can help sort this out and help you deliver feedback that’s more compassionate and less accusatory. The difference between shame (toxic) and guilt (healthy) is the difference between “you’re bad” and “you screwed up,” according to Dr. Brene Brown.
- Be curious. Whenever I see– or do– something that looks like a big mistake or an outright failure, I always wonder how it’s serving the greater good. I’m a reverse pessimist: I assume that everything that happens to me happens for my benefit. There’s always something to learn from every mistake or failure. Cultivate a culture where the first questions you ask when someone screws up is, “What did you learn from this? What’s the next best step?”
- Practice gratitude. Regularly show appreciation to the people you work with and for. This advice goes against the grain: old school leaders were taught not to praise people gratuitously. A coachee told me recently that her CEO told her not to show so much appreciation for a key team member because “he’ll get a big head.” Not true! He’ll feel appreciated and his engagement will be higher. Praise generously, but honestly. Nobody likes to be over-praised; it’s not sincere.
- Learn how to give and receive feedback. Develop a culture where continuous feedback is the norm, and practice, practice, practice. Don’t get defensive (I know, easier said than done), but be open and curious. Contact us if you want to learn some feedback frames that can help. firstname.lastname@example.org
We’ve all spent a lifetime learning how to be perfectionists; let’s dismantle it in far less time. Together, we can.