The Perfect Corporate Culture Doesn’t Exist

by Jennifer Miller on July 14, 2010

in Leadership, Team Effectiveness

Perfection Messing Up Your Corporate Mojo?

Have you ever noticed how pervasive “perfection” is in our language?

Perfectionism isn’t limited to solely to our language, either. As a practice, The Quest for Perfect shows up on a regular basis in the workplace, most typically as a byproduct of a company’s culture.

When thinking of how workplace culture shapes employee behavior, a senior leadership work team that I consulted with comes to mind. The team was comprised of the top six leaders of a small manufacturing company and they were grappling with trust issues..  We were working offsite, trying to come up with some workable operating guidelines to ensure a more trusting, productive environment.  At one point, a Vice President bravely stepped out and said, “We are so demanding of each other, there’s absolutely no room for mistakes.” We explored this issue for a few minutes, with several people contributing their perspectives.

Finally, the leader of the team (who held the title General Manager) blurted out in frustration, “Jennifer, you simply don’t understand!  Quality is one of our company’s core values.  We’re at nearly zero defects per million on our products.  We live and breathe perfection. It’s who we are.”

Yes, indeed, Mr. General Manager. Your Culture of Perfection, while admirable for creating superior products, is eroding the relationships of the senior management team.  Our discussion then took a very interesting turn in which I was able to share an alternate perspective on perfection:

Strive for perfection in process and grace with people.

 

A process doesn’t have feelings, but people do.  When team members demand relentless perfection of one another in the workplace, they create unrealistic expectations for both work output and interpersonal effectiveness.  This is not a call for tolerating mediocrity.  On the contrary, in the workplace people should continually seek process improvement. All the while, they must be mindful: The creatures in charge of the process are human. Mistakes happen.  People misjudge situations.  Tempers flare. As humans, it’s what we do. Expecting perfection in the way humans relate to one another is like expecting every golf game to have a hole-in-one shot. It’s unrealistic.

Back to our struggling leadership team— we invested time defining areas in which “perfection” was an appropriate goal, and situations in which we should encourage a more forgiving stance. We also discussed that pesky gray area of “good enough”. As you might expect, there were varying opinions on when something should be deemed “good enough” to pass inspection— be it a process, a document or an interpersonal relationship.  All in all, it was a fruitful discussion.  Even though we didn’t create the definitive list (there’s no “perfect” list, after all!), we did bring this issue out into the open and develop some perspective around it.

Here’s the rub. . . this company was “successful” by nearly every measure: commitment to its core values, profitability, steady growth, quality products and employee satisfaction.  The company’s culture highly influenced achievement in these metrics. That’s a good thing. Even so, this company still wasn’t perfect. All workplaces, even the highly productive and positive ones, have their downsides because corporate cultures, like the humans that comprise them, are dynamic, influential and yes, sometimes flawed.

The General Manager in my example had his eyes opened that day. He realized that the culture he helped to create, while enviable, still had it drawbacks. His company’s culture of perfection wasn’t so much a problem to be “fixed” so much as it was a dynamic to acknowledge and direct. Leaders of organizations who recognize this and create interpersonal practices that allow some slack are the ones who create vibrant, sustainable corporate cultures.  Imperfections and all.

Photo credit istockphoto.com © Robert Hadfield

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Kunz July 14, 2010 at 1:55 pm

That VP’s quote — “We are so demanding of each other, there’s absolutely no room for mistakes” — is really, really scary. That would snuff out the tiniest spark of creativity or risk-taking.

I really like what you said: perfection in process, grace with people. I wish the VP had said something like “We’re dedicated to getting it right, so have each other’s back.”

Jennifer July 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Larry,

Thanks for stopping by The People Equation!

Eventually, that’s where the team ended up: agreeing they wanted to “have each other’s back”. This was a small company– about 100 employees and they were all moving so fast in their quest to put out quality product that they sometimes were less-than-forgiving with each other.

Andrea Wenger July 14, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Thanks for these insights, Jennifer. Perfection is expensive–in monetary terms as well as human ones. Striving for perfection in every aspect of business is ultimately a recipe for failure. A competitor is sure to come along who has a more balanced approach. It’s important to figure out where perfection is the appropriate standard, and where 99% (or even 80%) is good enough.

Gireesh Sharma July 21, 2010 at 9:18 pm

An awesome article on “PERFECTION”. I sure gonna bookmark it and shoot at those managers who keep screaming on silly mistakes of their subordinates or peers!

working girl July 22, 2010 at 5:18 am

Y’know it’s funny – case studies are constantly published where ‘top performing companies’ are analyzed as examples and I have friends that work at quite a few of them. More often than not they complain that their ‘perfect’ company is hell to work at!

Dominic Rajesh July 26, 2010 at 4:21 am

Thank you for sharing your experience. “Strive for perfection in process and grace with people” is a great quote and the right way to deal with such instances. Otherwise, the organization just becomes too task oriented and everybody would be burnt out! And like you rightly mentioned, all the negativity and blocked creativity only adds fuel to the burning fire!!

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: