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When perfection gets in the way of results

According to results from research carried out by Kenzie Group, clients believe in general that consultants are guilty of ‘spinning things out’, ‘not communicating’ and ‘not being clear’.

I decided to examine the evidence to try and find out if this was the case and if it wasn’t, what was creating that perception among clients.

My work led me to the conclusion that the perception is related to the tendency for consultants to be perfectionists. Many consultants in the construction and engineering field like to be precise and they like to be accurate – it goes with the territory. But how can this high personal expectation be balanced with value for money for the client?

It is important to know the difference between positive perfectionists and negative perfectionists. While it is important to strive for high quality results at all times, it is equally important to know when something is good enough.

Perfectionism is defined as:

  1. The relentless striving for extremely high standards (for yourself and/or others) that are personally demanding.
  2. Judging your self-worth based largely on your ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards.
  3. Experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the huge cost to you.

(‘Perfectionism in Perspective’: Fursland, Raykos and Steele)

When a client is paying a daily rate for an unfixed term, they expect to see results and for things to be kept moving along. Adaptive perfectionists strive for quality and improvement, are positive in outlook and are happy to learn and improve.

But a maladaptive perfectionist may struggle to be satisfied with what they have done and so work gets repeated. The project stagnates while the consultant lives in fear of finishing it and it not meeting their own expectations. This is maladaptive perfectionism.

Maladaptive perfectionists suffer from the following habits:

  • They see any mistake as a failure, and if someone does a task or project better than them, they feel that they have failed. They might also conceal mistakes from others.
  • They feel uncomfortable whenever they don’t achieve their definition of perfection.
  • They don’t like taking risks, because they can’t guarantee the outcome. They stick with safer tasks, because they know that they can achieve them.
  • Learning is less important to them than the end result.
  • They exhibit ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking: either something is perfect, or it’s a failure.
  • They worry about what others think. They feel that if their flaws are exposed, others will reject them.
  • They don’t handle criticism and feedback well.
  • They can be guilty of applying their unrealistic expectations to those around them, becoming critical when colleagues don’t meet those expectations.
  • They have a difficult time delegating tasks to others.

If you recognise any of these traits in yourself, you can seek to manage them by challenging your beliefs and finding out what these issues truly stem from.

The best way to overcome them is with support from a mentor or coach who can facilitate the discussion. Mentoring and coaching can greatly aid self reflection and help you to put the issues mentioned above into perspective, allowing you to develop a healthier approach that delivers results that you and others a perfectly happy with.

Penny Whitelock, July 2016

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