With Martin G. Moore

Episode #169

The Pursuit of Perfection: Sounds noble, doesn’t work

Even after the disruption of the last 18 months, I still see many companies weighed down by a perfectionistic culture.

If we’ve learned nothing else from the Covid experience, it’s that we can move so much faster than we initially think we can—but to do so takes a commitment to the principle of excellence over perfection.

What will it take to conquer our need for perfectionism and instead, to adopt an achievement orientation?

In this episode, I explore why the pursuit of perfection is not as noble as it might first appear, and expose the six key performance elements that are stymied by perfectionism.

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Episode #169 The Pursuit of Perfection: Sounds noble, doesn’t work

The pursuit of perfection: sounds noble, doesn’t work. Even after the disruption of the last 18 months, I still see many companies weighed down and stymied by perfectionistic culture. If we’ve learned nothing else through the Covid experience, it’s that we can move so much faster than we initially think we can – but to do so, it takes a commitment to the principle of excellence over perfection. Many of us are held back – to some degree, at least – by perfectionism. In terms of timing, given that we’re currently running one of our Leadership Beyond the Theory cohorts, excellence over perfection is top of mind for me as I’m responding to a number of questions about perfectionism and why it is the enemy of value. So what will it take to conquer our need for perfectionism and to start adopting and achievement orientation?

Today, I’m going to give you a bunch of good reasons why the pursuit of perfection is not as noble as it appears, and certainly not as desirable as we might think. My fervent hope for you, is that you can start to tame this beast and really supercharge your leadership capability.

  • I’m going to open by sharing a little bit of my own journey from perfectionism to excellence.

  • I’ll go on to revisit a very early podcast episode, where I looked at the psychology of the perfectionistic mindset.

  • I’m going to finish by running through the six desirable objectives that are much more difficult to achieve in a perfectionistic culture.

So let’s get into it.

A journey to excellence

Well over 10 years ago, I went through a 360 degree feedback process for the first time. It was the first time I’d been exposed to the Human Synergistics suite of tests that I eventually became very familiar with, and used extensively in the organisations I led. The overall outcomes from my test – the LSI – were pretty good, but the organisational psychologist who debriefed me was able to give me one incredible insight. Back then, I was firmly of the belief that the pursuit of perfection was not only desirable, but the unequivocal duty of every leader. If you weren’t constantly striving for perfection, then what were you doing? You owed it to your people and you owed it to the company.

Just to give you some background on the testing itself with LSI, you start by nominating a range of people to provide feedback on your behaviours: your direct reports, your peers, your direct boss – thus the term 360 degree feedback because the perspectives come from every direction. The feedback is then calibrated to look for trends and patterns in how the people who work with you, experience you in the workplace. This can highlight differences in different groups that you interact with. Imagine the variances in observation if you just happen to be a kiss up, kick down boss. It’s not uncommon that the experience of your direct reports is very different from your boss’s experience, and this is often exposed in the testing.

Needless to say, the first reaction I normally see from leaders who have negative feedback is to rationalise it: “Well, I think it must’ve been Marty who made that comment because last week I had to have a hard conversation with him,” or, “Oh, I was waiting for direction from the CEO. So that’s why my team may have experienced me as being indecisive”. The first thing for me was always the challenge to get people to accept the feedback, and to look for the key themes. This was something I had to discipline myself to do as well. The LSI asks a battery of questions, which are cross-validated – well over 200 questions for each respondent to answer – so it’s pretty comprehensive. It then benchmarks these with thousands of organisations and leaders globally, who have undertaken the testing in the past few decades.

When I was being debriefed, the psychologist pointed something out to me: my level of perfectionism – as seen by the people who worked for me – was higher than my achievement orientation. So what? That’s okay, isn’t it? Well, not really. This was my first exposure to discussing the dark side of perfectionism, which is actually defined as an aggressive-defensive style, as opposed to achievement, which is a constructive style. Perfectionism is right up there with the three other aggressive styles of competitiveness, power, and oppositional behaviour. Whereas the constructive styles of achievement: self-actualization, humanistic encouraging, and affiliative are the styles that drive performance.

The object of the exercise is to build a constructive high-performance culture and perfectionism doesn’t live there. So I took this on board and I worked on it and I learned why perfectionism is a negative and achievement orientation is a positive. Over the years, this fundamental awareness enabled me to shift my style and approach so that if I undertook an LSI test today, for example, my perfectionism would be extremely low and my achievement orientation would be off the charts. In this episode, I hope to give you a nudge in that direction.

excellence over perfection

Now, I just want to revisit one of the earliest episodes of No Bullsh!t Leadership, and it’s Episode 3: Excellence Over Perfection. I’m going to take a cut directly from that episode for two reasons: the first is because it’s a crisp articulation of the psychological phenomenon of perfectionism. The second reason is because it’s so much fun to listen to the old episodes and realise how shit my delivery was. The content of the early episodes is awesome – even if I do say so myself. But, I’m sure you’ll see that I’ve come a long way in my narration and storytelling, and this in itself is a lesson: you don’t need to be perfect – you need to get started and get something out there. Don’t let perfectionism drag you into a spiral of inaction. Let’s take a listen to Episode 3:

Perfection sounds really good in theory, but it has a number of drawbacks. The first thing is, it just takes a really long time. It ignores the Pareto Principle – as we all know, that’s the 80/20 rule that says 80% of the results actually come from 20% of the effort. You may have also heard the term ‘the point of diminishing returns’. This, in a nutshell, is the point at which the value you get from continuing to improve a product is less than the investment of time and resources required to make that improvement. This sucks everyone into a hole and one perfectionistic leader can disable a whole team. Perfectionism tells your people that their best isn’t good enough. It’s actually a massive demotivating factor. Imagine how someone feels when they submit some of their best work – work that they’re really proud of, only to have it rejected by their perfectionistic leader. It also reinforces the paradigm of activity over value because so much effort, and so much activity, can be put into the unattainable quest for perfection, and that doesn’t actually deliver any value for the organisation. If the perfectionism is leader driven and part of the culture, it sits the leader up as the expert, and this really clouds the accountability model.

A graphic illustration of the positive nature of an excellence mindset comes from the world of professional sport. In Major League baseball, if I could only make it to first base on every third appearance at the plate, I would be in the top 30 players of all time. That’s only a one in three success rate. It means I get to strike out on two innings out of three, and I’ll be incredibly successful and make a truckload of money. We need to embrace these types of realities and think about what we do differently. And in the really important stuff that we think has to be right, no matter what, we need to think about layers of excellence, rather than single points of perfection.

6 ways perfectionism damages key leadership objectives

Now that we’re developing a better understanding of why perfectionism may not be quite as desirable as we first thought, let’s look at this a little more deeply. Perfectionism damages and detracts from these six key leadership objectives:

1) Perfection is the enemy of confidence 

Perfectionism is often a defence mechanism to help us overcome our fear of scrutiny, critique and judgement . We’re afraid of not getting it right, and as long as we’re “perfecting” something, we remain in a relatively safe place. It protects us from criticism and circumvents our fear of failure, but eventually, no matter what we’re doing, we have to deliver it. Ironically, the longer we spend in the pursuit of perfection, the more our confidence is sapped. I’ve seen many cases where individuals become frozen because the more they try to seek certainty, the more they realise that certainty isn’t achievable.

In a perfectionistic world, we try to gather more data, consult more people and wait for more certainty, but that certainty never arrives. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – even in relatively finite disciplines like engineering. I used to think that engineering was a pretty black and white science, but nothing could be further from the truth. What I learned was that if I got five engineers in a room to discuss something, I’d get at least six different opinions, and this can be a real confidence sapper. The longer you spend on something, the more you see the complexities and competing perspectives on the problem. If you continue to look for perfection, you’ll see just how unattainable it is, and you’ll struggle to move forward. Perfection is the enemy of confidence.

2) Perfection is the enemy of outcomes

It drives you to the place of not wanting to deliver your outcome until everything is just so. I saw a documentary recently about the Brit pop band, Oasis, and in the mid-90s, their first three albums were some of the most critically-acclaimed and best-selling albums of their time. Now Noel Gallagher, the co-founder and songwriter said something incredibly interesting: “If I’d known how popular some of my songs were going to be, they never would have been released.” Just think about this – the fear of having so many people listening to the songs critically would have led Gallagher to second-guessing himself on whether or not they were good enough. Such an incredible insight to have.

Now don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not talking about having lax standards. It’s critical for a leader to maintain high standards of behaviour and performance in everything the team does. But, if you embrace the Pareto Principle and look at that point of diminishing returns, you’re much more likely to push the go button at the appropriate time, rather than sitting back waiting for more certainty. Perfection is the enemy of outcomes.

3) Perfection is the enemy of value

I think the value piece here is really worth re-examining. I’ve worked across many different industries in the last few years to help CEOs identify where the maximum value is for their business. People find it really hard to articulate properly. As long as you’re focused on the pursuit of perfection in a narrow area, you can’t focus on value capture, which comes from execution. The reason for this is that perfectionism tends to drag you further into the detail, and this is counterproductive – it then becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees. Excellence enables you to stand back and look at the bigger picture. To understand value, you have to be able to sit above any problem, option or possibility, and trace the value flow from effort and investment through to the ultimate value delivery. Perfectionism robs you of one of the key ingredients of value – and that’s speed. This can be detrimental in any environment.

When delivering high value initiatives, the faster you can implement, the earlier the opportunity to begin capturing the value. In the lead up to COVID, I know a large,  global organisation that had been working on a solution for its employees to work remotely for almost 18 months. The project team looked at everything from connection reliability and digital security, through to remote office ergonomics and activity monitoring. Yet when the pandemic hit, necessity truly became the mother of invention, and they were able to implement a solution within a matter of days for the executives, and a matter of weeks for the whole company worldwide. What if they had implemented that 18 months earlier? Sure, it might’ve been ugly, but it would have been excellent. Perfection is the enemy of value.

4) Perfection is the enemy of innovation 

We know that successful innovation requires agility and momentum. Speed to market is absolutely critical. Now I often refer to Clay Christensen’s work on innovation theory: some organisations only deliver incremental or sustaining innovations on their products. This means they add new features to improve their existing products. This is fine, but there comes a point at which customers won’t pay for the new bells and whistles because they don’t value them. Let’s face it, if I’m going to buy a coffee-maker, I don’t care if it has a clock on it that shows four different time zones. I probably don’t even care if it has a clock at all. The only reason would be to regulate the auto-brew function, which I use about once every three years.

Innovative disruption comes when companies can deliver new, low-cost versions of a high-end product that the customer isn’t prepared to pay for. Perfectionism pushes you to think about conservative, sustaining innovations rather than high value, disruptive innovations. Business is going to become even more fast-paced in the post-COVID world, requiring greater agility and speed of innovation. So don’t let perfectionism hold you back. Perfection is the enemy of innovation.

5) Perfection is the enemy of accountability

One of the main traps of perfectionism is that it pushes you to be more dependent on external factors beyond your immediate control: “I’m waiting for more data. I’m waiting for decisions to be made by the regulator. I’m waiting to consult with more people”. This enables an individual to push their accountability off to some nebulous, external person or event. It says “I want to perfect this outcome. To do so, I have no choice but to seek this input from external sources. Ergo, it’s not my fault that the deliverable is late.”  The accountability for meeting agreed deadlines, quality levels, and value outcomes is diluted. Perfection is the enemy of accountability.

6) Perfection is the enemy of great decisions 

I did a really old podcast episode – another one, it was Episode 20: Making Great Decisions. Speed of decision making is one of the most critical and overlooked criteria of a great decision. But also, great decisions are:

  • Made by a clearly accountable person;

  • They’re made at the right level;

  • They solve the core issue, not just alleviate the symptoms;

  • They balance short and long-term considerations;

  • They consider wide ranging inputs from relevant experts, and so forth.

The bottom line is a perfectionism slows down your decision-making. As I always say, a decision that’s 80% right today, is infinitely better than the decisions to 85% right next week, which in turn, is infinitely better than a decision that’s 90% right next month, because nothing gets to a hundred percent. Nothing. Ever. Perfection is the enemy of great decisions.

Tying all this up, moving from a philosophy of perfection to one of excellence is a mental, emotional, and psychological challenge. We have to be prepared to take on some personal risk, and use our best judgement to move forward with confidence. Once you understand this dynamic better, you’re more inclined to take the leap of faith. Until you do, true performance will allude your team, and the only thing you’ll be known for, is for not delivering on your obvious potential.


  • Ep. 3: Excellence Over Perfection – Listen Here

  • Ep. 20: Make Great Decisions – Listen Here


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

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  • Leadership Beyond the Theory – Learn More


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