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If there is one topic that rears its head often in conversations about leading in context it is the quest for perfection. Not just the leaders self-critic in full swing, but the expectation of the leader, real or perceived, on those they lead.

Of course, leaders want quality … a standard of work that meets the needs of the context and for which the outcome ticks all the boxes, meets the needs of users and is consistent with a quality that represents the organisation. It is how a leader determines this standard that creates what we call the #tyranny of perfection – that standard required of our people (and ourselves) that goes beyond a quality standard and endeavours to meet the personal, subjective and often unconscious needs of the leader.

Where work quality is below the standard required then leaders are, more often than not, capable of developing their people towards an improved standard of work that meets the standard required. What can happen in the quest for this is that the leader, driven by an unconscious need for perfection (as defined by them), sets unrealistic demands on people and, in the process, is in danger of demotivating to such an extent that some don’t even try and others fall off along the way.

When staff believe that living up the standard being asked of them feels beyond their capability, and all they get from their Leader is frustrating looks, little direction and maybe even a bad temper, they are not motivated to learn and grow and the situation continues to perpetuate itself to the frustration of the Leader.

How often do we hear “I just cannot get John to give me an acceptable quality of work no matter how much time I spend with him”?

Occasionally.

How often do we hear, “my boss is micro managing me up the yazoo…”?

Often.

Why do leaders fall into the trap of being perfectionistic or over managing the outcomes? Often there is a gap in their minds between what is deemed acceptable in general versus acceptable in the eyes of the leaders.It is the gap between a standard of work that would meet an objective “quality” test and the subjective needs of the leader that, once understood, can be navigated more effectively.

The chart above presents the gaps leaders work with in developing their people. If the leader fails to appreciate the difference between continuous improvement and setting seemingly impossible targets, we get a mis-match in perspectives and expectations.

Some useful reflective questions for the leader are:

  1. How often am I finding myself ‘doing the work myself’ because no one can do it as good as I can…!
  2. What will this extra level of striving give us?
  3. What am I delaying or inadvertently impacting by insisting on a higher level of perfection?

By all means set a stretch target, encourage continuous improvement and have people look to reach beyond a standard level of quality. Just watch where the gap between under performance and your definition of quality can derail your good intentions.

If you would like to find out more or discuss your leadership context and what help you might need, contact us here.

Greg Lourey is a Partner within The Leadership Context. His background in financial advisory, psychotherapy, as a musician, a pilot and martial arts student, makes every conversation with him an interesting one!

Padraig (Pod) O’Sullivan is a Partner of The Leadership Context. He is the author of the award winning ‘Foreigner In Charge’ book series. Listen to the latest podcast on The Leadership Diet.

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