Why you should strive for excellence at work, not perfection

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Feb 04

People — and managers — have perceptions about our work. These perceptions influence how people work with you and also how they help you in your work and career. When trying to present yourself to others at work, I would suggest aiming for excellence, not perfection. Here’s why.

Perfection has pitfalls

Perfection means you never finish

Today’s business moves too fast to achieve perfection. While you are working on ensuring there are no mistakes, nothing that will cause issues and imposing order on your work, your customers of your work become more impatient — “can’t you give me something?” — and eventually leave.

As Psychology Today notes:

What turns life into the punishing pursuit of perfection is the extent to which people are worried about mistakes. Concern with mistakes and doubts about actions are absolute prerequisites for perfectionism. Perfectionists fear that a mistake will lead others to think badly of them; the performance aspect is intrinsic to their view of themselves. They are haunted by uncertainty whenever they complete a task, which makes them reluctant to consider something finished.

Perfection takes too long

Perfectionists tend to not finish tasks because they are so afraid of making mistakes or not completely looking at all aspects of the work. This takes an inordinate amount of time, compounded by constantly reviewing work to look for mistakes.

If you needed quality work done quickly, would you give the work to a perfectionist?

Perfection reduces your performance

Because people are worried about making mistakes, they get anxiety over the work they do, reducing their performance levels — even causing failure. Again, from Psychology Today:

The incessant worry about mistakes actually undermines performance. Canadian psychologists Gordon L. Flett and Paul L. Hewitt studied the debilitating effects on athletes of anxiety over perfect performance. They uncovered “the perfection paradox.” “Even though certain sports require athletes to achieve perfect performance outcomes, the tendency to be cognitively preoccupied with the attainment of perfection often undermines performance.” Over-concern about mistakes orients them to failure.

Focus on Excellence

Excellence delivers quality work

Quality work meets the standards needed for your deliverable. Excellence also means that you’ve identified the areas that are OK for this go-around, but could be improved for the next iteration of the work.

Excellence is about doing outstanding work, not perfect work

This is a difference in perspective. Think of a baseball hitting average of .300 — outstanding compared to the competition. Yet, a perfectionist would think of themselves as an utter failure for getting an out 7 of 10 times at bat.

“There’s a difference between excellence and perfection,” explains Miriam Adderholdt, a psychology instructor at Davidson Community College in Lexington, North Carolina, and author of Perfectionism: What’s Bad About Being Too Good? Excellence involves enjoying what you’re doing, feeling good about what you’ve learned, and developing confidence. Perfection involves feeling bad about a 98 and always finding mistakes no matter how well you’re doing.

Are you a perfectionist in your work?

We always strive for accuracy in our work — think of a nurse or a doctor administering medication to a patient, for example. But accuracy is different than perfection. Someone who focuses on excellence is proud of their 100% accuracy in delivering medication to patients. Someone who focuses on perfectionism delivers the same 100% accuracy in delivering medications — but wonders if they really did it right.

You build confidence from excellence; you will cover mistakes if you are a perfectionist.

Wouldn’t you rather strive towards excellence?


About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.