Perfectionism Is Not a Flaw (1 of 2)

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Perfect 10: Source

If someone you care deeply about is having brain surgery, do you want a surgical team that says, “Done is better than perfect,” in the operating room? We don’t!

Too often, people focus only on the downside of perfectionism. Perfectionism, like almost all other character traits, is not inherently desirable or undesirable. It is not something people should work to overcome.  Furthermore, even if you want to overcome it, that’s extremely difficult to do because, like introversion, it’s a character trait.

If you are a perfectionist, we encourage you to embrace it as a strength, not curse it as a flaw. Instead of investing your time trying to shake off your perfectionism, you should seek situations in which being a perfectionist is a good fit. Look for an organization that is passionate about excellence, one that sets high standards for quality and aggressively strives for continuous improvement.

Maribel L

Maribel Cruz, Ph.D.

One of our favorite perfectionists, Maribel Cruz, offers this advice, “Don’t be satisfied with simply finding organizations that accept or tolerate your perfectionism. Make a point of actively seeking out roles that utilize perfection. Think about the forensic accountant who lives for the moment when he finds that missing thousand dollars, or the editor who relishes her peers who embrace the Oxford comma.”

In Social Situations

In some situations, perfectionism can create stress, both for the perfectionist and for those around her. Social situations often come to mind first. As a perfectionist attending a dinner party, you might well notice several flaws in the way the hostess executes the event. Success in that situation requires that you acknowledge those flaws (just in your head, of course), but don’t allow them to diminish your enjoyment of the evening. (And for goodness sake, don’t share them with the host – not even later!) Your perfectionism goes to work with you, too. When a person or a team at work has created a great success, there were almost certainly flaws in their performance. Be conscious and intentional about celebrating the success instead of leaping immediately to focus on the flaws. Leave that to another time if you think bringing up the flaws could help that person or team have greater future success.

You don’t have to give up your perfectionism, but when it comes to the shortcomings of people you care about, accept them as they are. Consciously and intentionally focus on what’s right about them rather than what’s wrong. Also, keep in mind that not everyone shares your love for perfection.

Here’s Maribel’s advice for navigating social situations as a perfectionist: “I don’t judge other people (well, except when it comes to hygiene/cleanliness because I will not eat off dirty dishes). It’s far easier to accept others’ flaws than it is my own. I’m much harder on myself than anyone else would be.”

In fact, Maribel tells this story about a former roommate, “I can live with slobs as long as they don’t mess up my personal space or any shared space. I had a housemate in grad school who literally did not notice a 40-pound bag of dirt I left in his room purposely. It sat there all year!”

At Work

Work situations can also be complicated for perfectionists, especially when it’s not brain surgery, and success really is defined more by “done” than by “perfect.” When a project has a hard deadline, make the work as close to perfect as possible, but meet the deadline. It’s ok to acknowledge that the product is not perfect, and it’s ok for that to bother you. The “bothering” part is just a feeling. You don’t have to allow that feeling to control you.  And you don’t have to try to stop being a perfectionist either. Instead of trying to change this character trait, Maribel suggests that you should work on managing the situation and consider how your perfectionism can serve you well.

For many perfectionists, including Maribel, perfectionism is a way to maintain control in a chaotic world. She explains, “It soothes me to polish my windows until no spots are left. Your run of the mill perfectionist gets a charge out of creasing the pants or knotting a tie just so. It’s about asserting personal agency in the world and enjoying the feeling of being in charge.” If doing something perfectly motivates you and provides a sense of satisfaction, by all means, do it!

Maribel also notes that “re-living my ‘perfect’ moments helps me re-experience the moments where that perfection has been attained so I can recapture the elements of that perfect performance to make it repeatable.” She uses past perfection to drive future perfection

Perfectionism is not a flaw. If you are reading this and you’re a perfectionist, embrace it! Perfectionists can add great value to any organization, provided it is harnessed in the right way.

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Larry Sternberg and Kim Turnage are authors of  Managing to Make a Difference (Wiley), a handbook for hitting the sweet spot of middle management. Maribel Cruz, Ph.D. is Director/Senior Leadership Consultant at Talent Plus, and her perfectionism creates excellence every day.

This is Part One in a two-part series on perfection. Check back next week for Part Two.

 

As A Mentor, Are You Asking The Right Questions?

An associate recently brought to my attention a worthwhile article entitled, “The Art of Asking Questions”, by Marshall Goldsmith, the world-renowned authority on mentoring, leadership and executive coaching. Dr. Goldsmith makes a distinction between information-seeking questions and understanding-seeking questions, and he points out that in a mentoring relationship understanding-seeking questions almost always contribute to a mentee’s growth. He then gives a list of elements that produce insight and a list of techniques that enhance the value of the dialogue. In this post I suggest some high-value questions that you can ask your mentees.

First of all, I LOVE Dr. Goldsmith’s title. Asking high-value questions is indeed an art. Asking the right question is supremely important for almost any professional, including scientists, physicians, social workers, police, journalists, attorneys, accountants, sales professionals — the list can go on and on. That underscores the importance of this topic.

Here are two statements that are particularly meaningful to me:

  • The kind of question you ask determines the kind of answer you’ll get.
  • Asking the right question is more important than finding the answer easily. Often, the struggle to find an answer results in substantial growth.

I’m going to share some questions that have served me well in mentoring relationships. But first, please know that I believe that the intent of the question is more important than the question itself. If the intent is to seek the mentee’s greatest good, that will be evident, and you’ll be able to ask more challenging questions. Also, let’s understand that all questions are asked within the context of an existing relationship. Part of the art here is understanding what questions are appropriate between the you and your mentee at a given point in your evolving relationship. With that understanding, here are some questions to consider if you’re the mentor.

In many instances you’ll be reviewing a mentee’s performance in a particular situation. So you might experiment with these questions:

  1. How do you think you did? (This is just to get a mental review going.)
  2. Did anything surprise you?
  3. What went well? And why? (People always want to focus on what did not go well. There is often more to be learned in thinking about what went well and how to repeat that in the future.)
  4. What did not go so well? And why?
  5. What lessons did you learn from this experience?
  6. What will you do differently in the future to improve your performance? And why?

In some instances, you’ll be discussing an upcoming situation. Consider these questions:

  1. What are your desired outcomes from this event? And why?
  2. How likely is it that your plan of action will achieve your desired outcomes? And why?
  3. What concerns you? And why?

Let’s understand that part of the art of asking high-value questions is actively listening and asking great follow-up questions. This is a talent. Great art requires great talent. That being said, here’s one follow-up that often comes in handy:

Tell me more. (OK, I realize it’s not technically a question.)

And I want to highlight one question that, asked sincerely, works in almost all cases:

How can I help? (If you ask only that one question, you and your mentee will be well served.)

Thanks to my friend, Tiatana Costello, for suggesting this topic.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear some questions that have served you well in mentoring relationships.

Larry Sternberg

Self Development — What’s In It for Me?

I stand for the point of view that human development is best nurtured through the right kind of relationships. Parenting, mentoring and coaching exemplify the kinds of relationships that can help shape a person and can lead to significant growth. So how does self-development fit in?

Each of us matures at his or her own pace. But whatever the pace, as we mature we assume more and more responsibility for the outcomes in our lives. By the time you’re an adult, you should assume some responsibility for your own development. Mentors and others should help you with this, but you must be an active participant in the process. For example:

A mentor can get you involved with a variety of activities and assignments to help you discover your aptitudes and interests. But you must enthusiastically engage.

A mentor can ask what you’re passionate about and can help you pursue those passions in ways that contribute to your growth. But your passions must arise from your heart. Your mentor is not responsible for installing them.

A mentor can help you ideate about various career arcs, but you must own your goals and your path.

Mentors exert a great influence on their mentees. But influence is not ownership. At some point in your journey you should assume the responsibility for your development. You should articulate a vision for your future. You should be clear about your values and goals. Mentors and others can help, but you have to own it. The final decisions are ultimately yours.

So with regard to self-development, what’s in it for you? Nothing more or less than taking charge of your future.

Using self-development tools you can gain a more profound understanding about how to align your strengths, your passions and your aspirations. After creating your own plan, you can ask your mentor or supervisor, “Will you support this plan? How can we improve it? Is there anything else I need to think about?” Then you’ll be leading your own development.

I hope you’re fortunate to have people in your life who are excited to invest in your development. In my opinion, self-development tools should not be viewed as a substitute for that sort of investment. But such tools can empower you to create more value in the relationship, not only for you, but also for your mentor.

Thanks to Beth Bruss for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Respond To Bad Behavior In The Workplace?

This might look like a very straightforward topic at first. “Larry, this isn’t even worthy of discussion.  Bad behavior should be punished. End of story.” It turns out to be a much more challenging topic than it might appear. That’s because you, as a leader, have to answer two questions:

  1. Was the behavior undesirable (bad)?
  2. What should the consequences be?

First, it’s important to understand that what counts as bad behavior in one culture might well be characterized as perfectly acceptable in another. For instance, in some organizations being late to meetings is considered disrespectful toward the other participants, and therefore bad. But in other organizations not being on time to meetings is routinely tolerated.

It’s vitally important to understand that the stated values of the organization are not the actual values. One learns the actual values of an organization by observation. What behaviors are rewarded? What behaviors are condemned and punished? What behaviors are ignored? Ultimately leaders, through their power, determine the organization’s official answers to these questions.

To further complicate matters, it’s also important to understand that all of this is a moving target. The answers to these questions evolve over time. In every community of people, there’s frequent discussion — judgmental discussion — about the behavior of others. This is how a community confirms and adjusts its written and unwritten code of behavior. Right now, for instance, our standards for the use of mobile devices and computers in meetings is in flux. Is it rude to check emails and texts during a meeting? Is it OK in some meetings, but not in others? In situations where it’s not OK, how should the organization respond?

As a leader, you’re accountable to determine the final answers to these questions. I stand for struggling to arrive at the answer that’s appropriate for each individual situation. This is difficult. I’d certainly tolerate my number one salesperson being late to meetings even if our culture labeled that behavior as disrespectful. But I wouldn’t tolerate disrespect in the form of racial slurs. Somewhere between those two situations there’s a line, but I can’t tell you exactly where it is.

No matter where the line is, there are some behaviors that should be treated with zero tolerance. Recently we’ve seen situations in which egregious behaviors have become institutionalized. Here are some examples. In certain organizations rapes are not properly investigated nor are the rapists held accountable. Known product defects causing injury, illness and death are covered up. Corners are cut on safety practices in order to reduce costs. Child abuse is tolerated and known abusers are not held accountable. Bribery is tolerated in order to achieve business goals.

Those kinds of institutionalized, intolerable behaviors can only occur in a culture where the leader has somehow established that those behaviors are OK. If unacceptable behaviors are routinely occurring under your watch, it’s your fault. Even if you’re not aware of the actual behaviors, you’ve somehow communicated that they’re OK. It has become part of your culture.

More oversight is not the answer to reducing bad behavior. As a leader, you should be proactive. You should make honesty and integrity absolute tickets to admission for all employees and especially for leaders. You should make strong and clear statements about the organization’s commitment to doing the right things right. You should walk your talk. When someone exhibits zero tolerance behaviors you should take swift and unequivocal action to hold them accountable. You should make it easy and safe for people to blow the whistle and you should reward them.

In order to minimize bad behavior, select people with impeccable honesty and integrity. Clarify what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. Tailor the consequences of unacceptable behavior to the person and the situation. Clarify what behaviors are in the zero tolerance zone and act rapidly to punish people who behave in those ways. And finally, reward those who bring bad behavior to light. If you do this effectively, bad behavior will occur occasionally, but it won’t become institutionalized.

Thanks to Jessica McMullen for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Are You Harnessing The Power Of The Handwritten Note?

My friend and former colleague, Carl Christensen, taught me this: “What’s most personal is most powerful.”

The purpose of this post is to serve as a reminder about the power of a handwritten note. These notes take more time and effort than electronic means of communication. They’re not as efficient, but they’re more personal. And let’s not overlook the fact that they’re tangible. It’s precisely for these reasons that the handwritten note has become even more valuable and powerful in modern times.

When an individual in your organization has done something worthy of a gesture of appreciation or recognition, consider writing a brief note. Believe it or not, there are some guidelines that will help you maximize its impact:

  • Refer to a specific example of what the person did.
  • State clearly how it makes a difference, adds value or contributes to the mission.
  • Use a phrase that expresses the sentiment, “I’m glad you’re here.”
  • Put it in an envelope to create some anticipation.

Here’s an example:

Dear Shirley,

Thanks for coming in on Sunday to make sure that we were able to email the revised documents to Blackacre, Inc. on Monday morning. Due to your “whatever it takes” attitude, the CEO was very impressed at our responsiveness. That’s how we earn customer loyalty. I’m glad you’re here.

Larry

Do you think a week goes by without someone in your organization doing something worthy of recognition or appreciation? (Hint: the correct answer is, “No.”)

What if you wrote at least one note every week? What if every person in management in your organization wrote one a week? How many tangible instances of appreciation/recognition would you generate in a year?

Someone always asks, “But Larry, can’t you overdo this?” That should be your problem. The problem is never volume, it’s sincerity. If each note is sincere and specific, and highlights something meaningful, you can’t overdo it. If you’re not being sincere and authentic, better not to do it at all.

Someone else always makes that point that they don’t have the time to do this. In training programs, I’ve timed people writing these notes. Empirically, if you already have the notecard and a pen, the average amount of time is 3 to 4 minutes.

Why would you not be willing to invest 3 to 4 minutes a week on a strategy that will improve morale, motivation and job satisfaction? Why would you not invest 3 to 4 minutes a week to become a more effective leader?

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Determine What’s Right For Your Culture?

Recently, a group of leaders in our company initiated a discussion on the following topic: How can we honor our strength-based, individualized philosophy while maintaining accountability? I love dialogue of this sort. It keeps the culture vibrant, and it presents a growth opportunity for all participants. This post is an example of a live dialogue about what’s right for a particular culture.

Our company culture is rooted in positive psychology. We place high value on these overlapping principles:

  • We focus most of our attention on what’s right about each person, rather than what’s wrong with them.
  • We treat each person differently, according to his or her unique configuration of needs, aspirations, strengths and weaknesses, rather than treating each person the same.
  • We help people grow by investing in each person’s strengths, rather than by investing in efforts to fix weaknesses.
  • We establish expectations that align with each person’s natural behaviors, rather than trying to install behaviors he or she doesn’t have in their repertoire.
  • We manage through relationship rather than through rules and policies. Leaders are required to use their judgement in making decisions that are right for each unique situation.

If you wish to hold someone accountable you must start with clear expectations and goals. Some expectations address behaviors and attitudes (e.g., be a great team player; have a positive attitude), which are generally difficult to measure objectively. In these cases, frequent, candid feedback from the leader must substitute for objective scores. The use of judgement is necessary here.

Some expectations address easily measurable outcomes (e.g., games won, sales revenue or customer satisfaction scores). Guess what? You have to decide where the goals should be set, which requires judgement.

If a person is not achieving his or her goals, what then? In our culture the leader’s job is to help employees succeed. In our culture the leader must do his or her best to coach the employee about how to use their strengths to meet the expectations and achieve the stated goals. They must avoid “one-size-fit-all” coaching recommendations. Furthermore,they must state what the consequences are if the goal is not achieved.

The use of judgement cannot be avoided. What is the root cause of the failure? Were the goals set too high? How much time should we give the person before we give up? Are there different consequences if they a) just barely missed the goal, or b) missed it by a mile? How does this most recent performance look in light of historic performance? Is there way to job sculpt or re-cast?

A strength-based, individualized culture embraces clearly defined expectations and goals, which should be individualized. So two people in the same role might well have different goals. Leaders are accountable to help people succeed by using their individual strengths. Our culture also embraces accountability when people are not meeting expectations, and the nature of the consequences should be individualized to the person and the situation. This approach is the opposite of one-size-fits all. It’s messier, it’s more challenging, and it requires superior judgement at every step.

I’m sharing this internal discussion in my blog for two reasons. First, I believe this discussion is healthy. Any organization’s culture is strengthened by conversations of this sort, and I wanted to give a specific example. Second, I don’t think issues about accountability are unique to our company, so I hope any reader can benefit from this discussion, even though their culture is different.

Thanks to the group of leaders who initiated this conversation. I’m looking forward to more dialogue.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

When Aspirations Don’t Align With Talent, What Do You Say?

During the course of your career you’ll sometimes have to speak with someone who aspires to a certain role in your organization even though she doesn’t have the natural talent to perform that role with excellence. What do you say? How do you help her work through this? That’s the topic of this post.

Let’s agree that if this employee doesn’t have the natural talent for the aspirational role, it’s not in anyone’s interest to cast him in it. The ideal outcome would be that the employee is not given the aspirational role, understands why (even if he disagrees with the reasoning), and remains an engaged contributor in a role with a career arc more suited to his natural talents.

Every situation is unique, so I can’t give you a script. But I can give you some guidelines.

While you’re going through this, remember that people almost always accept the final decision — it’s the process they complain about. Let’s understand there’s no way she’s going to feel good about it in the moment. You’re delivering bad news. So don’t try to sugarcoat this. Be transparent, clear and compassionate. Listen actively. If you sincerely have the employee’s best interests at heart she’ll know that. And she’ll know it if you don’t.

Start by asking this person to tell you why he seeks this role. Listen, listen and listen some more. Give some feedback demonstrating you understand his thoughts and feelings.

Then discuss what the person’s life will be like on a day-to-day basis. Help him visualize it. Remember, our hypothetical involves a person who doesn’t have strong talent for the role. Therefore, it’s likely he’ll be required to engage frequently in activities that he doesn’t enjoy. For instance, suppose an individual performer aspires to become a manager. Does he want to sit in meetings half the day? Does he want to be accountable for the performance of others? Does he want to spend a lot of time on administrative paper work? Does he want to work the hours required in this role? Does he want to confront unacceptable work performance?

When someone is in the wrong fit for her talent she’ll experience a lot of stress, which will cause physical and emotional problems. Personally, I don’t want to be a party to that. I’m comfortable saying, “I don’t think that role is the best fit for you. I don’t think you’ll like doing those activities, and I don’t think it’ll be good for you.”

If there is a role in which this person can excel, discuss the importance of that role in the company. Help her understand why she’s better suited for this role than others. Help her visualize the difference she can make and the growth she can experience as you invest in her strengths.

If it’s clear to you that the person will never get that aspirational role, don’t lead him on. I’ve said to more than one person, “Honestly, I don’t think that’s in your future here. I think we have associates whose talent is more suitable for that role, so I think you’ll be out-competed when opportunities open up. I know this is hard to hear, but I want to be honest with you.” Don’t lead him on.

In these types of situations, you’re going to win some and lose some. On several occasions I’ve lost good employees who went to companies that were willing to give them that aspirational role. I have no regrets. Because the alternative — giving them the role — is worse for them, worse for the company, and worse for the customers.

Thanks for reading. And thanks to my associate Cami Wacker for suggesting this topic.

I’m sure some of you have additional suggestions, and I’d love to read them. We can all get better at this.

Larry Sternberg