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Is the Pursuit of Perfection Helping or Harming Your Business?

Jim Collins wrote that "good is the enemy of great" to indicate that settling for "good enough" often resulted in teams that stopped striving for great results.

But what if great is also the enemy of the good?

While many business programs strive for perfection, a singular focus on reaching it can often cause more harm than good to your company. Here's why.

Perfection Slows Down Your Quest for Improvement

While striving for perfection can feel motivating or even necessary, it's ultimately a path to a dead end. When you reach "perfection," there's nothing more to do. There's no more room to grow.

Setting perfection as your end point, whether or not you reach it, has two negative effects on your company. First, it indicates that growth, learning and development have an end point. Teams are less likely to embrace learning as a lifelong, life-enriching activity and see it as one more task to slog through until they can rest.

Second, demanding perfection greatly slows down the introduction of new products and services. When teams feel pressure to make every detail perfect, they spend far more time in the planning, research and development stages.

While more time and forethought may seem like a good thing, ultimately, innovation suffers. Delaying a product or service's release until every detail is just right eliminates the chance to learn from customer feedback. Instead of letting those who actually buy from you tell you what's great, you try to guess their needs - and can easily fail.

Also, in a fast-paced business world, those who are first to market often end up owning the space, even if their product ends up being inferior to later iterations from competitors. Too much emphasis on perfection relegates your company to the position of follower - a space in which it's tough to build a brand and even tougher to charge a premium for high-quality products and services.

Perfection Raises Stress Levels

A study published in the Journal of the American Psychological Association in 2017 found that perfectionism is both increasing in the U.S. and that it is causing more stress among those who consider themselves perfectionists.

Perfectionism is typically divided into three types: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism. All three can have a negative effect on workers' performance and thus on the performance of the companies they serve.

Self-oriented perfectionists are their own worst enemies. These perfectionists hold themselves to extremely high standards - often, far beyond a standard they can reasonably achieve. They often have a constant review of their own actions and decisions going in their heads, searching for the tiniest possible errors. And when something goes wrong on the team, they take all the blame themselves.

Other-oriented perfectionists turn this criticism outward. They hold others to unrealistic standards. As a result, they find it difficult to trust. In the workplace, they may be overworked as they try to take on everyone else's tasks, or they may fail to hold up their end of the load, convinced that anything they do is better than what their team members will contribute.

Socially prescribed perfectionism is driven by the perception (accurate or not) that others are holding you to an unrealistic standard. While some workers are naturally hyperaware of what others think, often, a team that doesn't struggle with the stress of perfectionism will start to do so when it becomes clear their boss or company's leadership is judging them by an unrealistic standard.

Under this form of perfectionism, the sense of self-worth begins to break down, causing workers' results to suffer. "If I'm never going to be good enough," the reasoning goes, "why bother?"

If the Goal Isn't Perfection, What Is It?

Businesses aren't entirely responsible for their employees' orientation toward perfectionism. However, a company's environment and culture can have a profound effect on whether employees' desire for the perfect drives their work or burns them out.

Start by encouraging a shift away from perfection and toward curiosity, learning and growth. Relax the standards for new and experimental projects and eliminate penalties for failure, especially in the early stages. Create space for workers to try new things with the understanding that it's OK to fail - the important thing was to learn something from the experience.

By positing learning as a lifelong activity, companies take the ceiling off their own growth. The goal becomes not perfection, but continual understanding and innovation in a rapidly changing world: a recipe for long-term success.