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perfection is the enemy of creativity

Perfection and the Desire for making Zero Mistakes is the Enemy of Creativity

Every one of us wants to do our best.  We don’t come to work to make mistakes and get ridiculed.  However, many managers are competitive people and it drives a need for perfection.  Wanting to do things correctly is admirable, yet when it gets in the way of a motivated and productive team, the manager has stopped leading.  Having a clear understanding of when mistakes should be tolerated — and even encouraged — is a stepping stone for the developing leader.  Learn about managing mistakes and how perfection is our enemy in this episode of the Manager Mojo podcast.
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TRANSCRIPT: Perfection is the Enemy of Creativity

Do You Expect Perfection?

Welcome and I’m glad you joined me today.

Today I’d like to talk about “Do you expect perfection?”  This is a very, very personal thing to me, because perfection is one of those things I’ve struggled with most of my life. let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

I have heard many managers over the years that are under so much pressure, they’ve got so many things going on, and they are juggling so many balls that they would lose their patience with their people.  Nothing good happens when you lose your patience.

Here’s what can happen when you lose your cool.   I’ve heard not just one, not just two, but multiple managers actually say they were faced with an employee that made a mistake and they said, “You made the same mistake again? What are you, stupid?”

You can imagine how well that goes over for that employee, not to mention for the manager who has totally lost control up their team at that point.

You know, it starts at home.  We do this kind of thing with our children.  We can get so frustrated with our children that we’ll lose our cool and say something really dumb.  Unfortunately, if we said that very thing to a child we actually lower their self-esteem for the rest of their life.  Well if it hurts children, what do you think it does to an employee?

It’s not good when you lose your cool and you say something like that, and I know most of you are saying, ‘Well gee Steve, I’ve never done that to my team.’  But I’ll bet you’ve been close.

Let me tell you a little from my own personal standpoint, as this is something that I was not even aware of.   I didn’t even know that I had perfection tendencies and it was many years before I figured it out.  Once I did I realized it was a source of some of the problems that I had.

You see, early in my life, when I was a child, I never expected perfection.  As a matter of fact, my parents didn’t even teach me that I had to make perfect scores in school.  What they taught me was to always do my best, and so therefore I knew I didn’t have to make a perfect score on the test.   I didn’t have to make an A, I just had to do my best.

Well there was one thing about my natural behavior that my parents didn’t understand. I didn’t understand it either.  You see, I am naturally extremely competitive, and I’ll bet that many have you are just like me, because you’re in management.  You’re in leadership.  Your natural behavior is that you are naturally competitive.

What I started doing was competing against myself.   When I heard the words ‘do my best’ I naturally kept trying to overachieve.   I would do things that on the surface now look really silly, but back then I didn’t think too much about it.   I was just going about being myself.

When I was involved in sports I always wanted to be the best at what I did, and I always wanted to win.  That competitive spirit actually started to spill over into my learning and it began to go into all areas of my life.

I’ll give you a prime example of just how silly it could be.   When I was a barely 12 years old we lived in the country.   We had a large plot of land and we planted a garden.  In the garden we planted what we called butter beans.  They are called different things in different areas of the country, and most people call them Lima beans.  They grew really close to the ground and were really difficult to pick.   Yet my father had said, “Steve you can pick those beans that are really hard to do because you’ve got to get on your knees.   But if you pick them you can sell them and keep the money.  Put it in your savings account.  I thought that was a pretty good deal.   I started picking those beans and, you know, they are really hard to pick!  It takes a long time to get a bushel of them, and so I started competing with myself to see how fast I could pick them.

The first hour I did a certain amount and thought, man that’s not enough.   I’ve got to pick it up.  I can do better than that.  I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing.  Well, the next thing I knew it was the end of the day.   I had been in that field all day long, I barely taking time for drinking water and only just a bite to eat during the middle of the day.  But at the end of the day I had picked 8 bushels of beans, so I sold those beans and pocketed the money.  But I’ve got to tell you, my knees were killing me!

What hard work that was, and even in simple things I started competing against myself.   I’ll bet many of you have done the exact same thing.

When I became an adult I still had this drive to compete with myself.   The reality was that even though other people were reporting to me, I had this competition going on internally to be better so I could get promoted faster.   I wanted to make more money faster.   I wanted to do everything in a hurry.

This craving for perfection started to take over me.  I did some really dumb things, not exactly where I told somebody they were stupid, but it was the same thing and just as bad.  I finally began to realize that when I said things that were hurtful to someone or that I was expecting them to achieve a level of perfection I didn’t understand that what I was expecting from others is actually the opposite of teaching.

I know today that in order to have a great team you must be more of a teacher instead of a perfectionist.  Understand that when you expect perfection what you’re going to sow the seeds a failure.  Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

You see, perfection does something very bad to team dynamics.  It actually makes your team members overly cautious, and when you have a cautious team they don’t perform very well.  They make mistakes that they never would make if they didn’t feel the pressure of having to do it perfectly.  This type of demanding attitude for everybody to get everything right slows teamwork and it slows productivity down.   That’s not even a goal in management.

In management you should expect mistakes.   As a matter of fact, you should encourage mistakes.   That was counterintuitive to me and to my nature.  Why in the world would you want to make a mistake?  Now I understand that you want to encourage mistakes because mistakes are how people grow.  It’s how they get better.   People learn from making mistakes.  They realize that their job is not in jeopardy just because they made a simple mistake.  As a matter of fact when they realize their boss is actually encouraging them to really reach out and expand their reach.  When they know their boss is okay with them making a mistake, it totally transforms the team dynamic.

As a leader, you can encourage people to make a mistake and not hold on to this perfection level that just kills productivity.   People cannot achieve when they feel they’re under pressure of losing their job, losing a raise, or even worse, losing the respect of their leader.  That turns people in the opposite direction and before long they become people at work who are just going through the motions.

So many managers tell me, “Steve my team is just going through the motions.  They’re disengaged.   I can’t really get them motivated.   I can’t move them forward.”   When I start asking questions they never look at themselves.  They’re always looking at what other people were doing.  Then I start asking questions — Give me some examples of what are you doing.  How are you working with each person?   And they ask, “What do you mean, working with each person?  I had a team meeting and told everybody what they had to do.   I was very clear about it.  Their job is to go do it.”

That’s not what you do.  What that does is set a level of perfection for everyone.  They’ve got to figure out what you were saying in a group session and then they’ve got to go execute upon it.  That’s not human nature and people really and truly don’t communicate well that way.

It’s not intuitive for us to understand that some people listen differently than others.  In other words, you’ll say something and yet they heard something completely different than what you thought you said.  This happens to all of us that have been in management long enough.  We will think we were very clear in what we said only later to find out that people drew erroneous conclusions based on what they thought they heard.  So we can’t expect people to be perfect listeners any more than we can expect them to be perfect doers.   Yet I’ve watched manager after manager kill their career because they refuse to believe that they themselves were part of the issue.  We have to look at ourselves honestly in order to improve.

As the leader, it’s our job to adjust.  It’s not up to the team to adjust.  It’s up to us as a leader, and that means we have to demonstrate our own imperfections.  It’s okay to make a mistake.

Even during this discussion we are having,  I had to take some water in clear my throat.   That’s a mistake according to most people.  You shouldn’t have to do that.  You wouldn’t leave that mistake in, and many people would edit that out.  But I won’t edit it out because it doesn’t matter.  It’s okay if I made a little stumble there and had to have some water.  There is nothing wrong with that.

Just that tolerance to say it’s okay to make a mistake frees people.   It allows them to express their natural creativity.  You will find that creativity will go and hide the more pressure you put on it.   We have all heard a writer say they have writer’s block.  Well, they’re putting pressure on themselves to put something on the page instead of allowing their mind to relax and their imagination to take hold.

Great teams and great leaders understand how to allow mistakes in such a way that people’s imagination can come to work with them.  They can figure out ways to do things better, more effectively and to do them even faster.   That’s when teams feel empowered to take risk.  When they know that their boss really has their back.   They know they’re not going to shoot them in the back, but they’re going to protect their back whenever a mistake is made.

Those are learning moments for people.  If you’re going to be great in leadership, you have to start with yourself.  Accept the fact that you will never be perfect.  You’re going to make mistakes.  You’re going to do things that are wrong.  That’s just fine.  If you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not managing yourself correctly.

You need to be making a few mistakes so that you can grow.  If you’re willing to tolerate it of yourself, I promise it’s so much easier to allow other people to make mistakes in such a way that they don’t feel like you are imposing your will on them.

Do you expect perfection?  Do you believe that making mistakes should never happen? I hope you would say that you no longer do.  Begin to give yourself a little freedom, give your team a little freedom, and if you do I promise you are going to become the leader that others want to follow.