The most effective managers elicit the key talents and capabilities of the people on their teams, instead of doing all the work themselves. Therefore, any conversation about middle management excellence should be approached as a conversation about how the manager is engaging their team. We suggest that a key quality of an excellent manager is to demand excellence rather than demand perfection.
Demanding Perfection vs Demanding Excellence
- Demanding perfection is saying: “No Mistakes!”
- Perfection requires everything to be “RIGHT.”
- Perfection leads to fear, stress and anxiety.
- Perfection discovers something WRONG and becomes frustrated and angry.
- Perfection struggles to fix mistakes by seizing CONTROL.
- Perfection determines everything is either right or wrong, and is therefore very JUDGEMENTAL.
- Perfection is obsessed with DESTINATION, or final outcome only.
- Demanding excellence says: “Do your absolute best!”
- Excellence says “Mistakes are OK! Let’s fix them and move on.”
- Excellence is willing to RISK and try new things.
- Excellence exhibits POWER because it is constantly learning and improving.
- Excellence, from a place of POWER, is creative and spontaneous.
- Excellence, instead of judging, listens and observes, remaining OPEN to solutions.
- Excellence enjoys the destination as well as the journey.
Demanding Perfection: A Workplace Example
It is 10am, and a team files into the conference room to make their quarterly presentation to their manager. Although they exchange some comments and pleasantries as they file in, each individual appears somewhat preoccupied and uncomfortable.
Making this presentation to their manager has become one of their least favorite routines to endure. This isn’t because the subject matter is difficult or distasteful. Each member of the team is highly knowledgeable and competent. The issue is the manager.
The manager has a predilection for calling out mistakes and errors. He prides himself on “logical thinking.” The truth however, is that this man is a perfectionist. He has no problem interrupting the team mid-presentation, grilling them about some point or another, and even telling individuals that their ideas are “stupid.”
In response to their manager’s tendency to focus ruthlessly on mistakes, real or perceived, the team members have been primed to be exclusively-focused on not making any mistakes, and being right – instead of forthrightly discussing problems and exploring solutions as a group.
Now, of course, being 100% right all the time (i.e. “perfect”) is impossible because we are imperfect human beings. Therefore, the members of the team have been experiencing a steady increase of fear, stress and anxiety leading up to the meeting.
It is worth mentioning that the perfectionistic manager himself lives in a baseline state of fear, stress and anxiety from his own need to have things be perfect. However, if demanding perfection is part of his daily operating system, those feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety have likely become part of his “normal” spectrum of emotions.
In the course of the presentation, the manager as always, discovers something is wrong with the team’s reasoning or logic. This gives him a reason to become angry at the failure to be perfect. Keep in mind that it is also likely that members of the team could become angry with each other for any mistake drawing the manager’s ire. It is a very unpleasant experience for all.
As always, the manager, having “caught’ a mistake, now seizes control of the meeting. This is secretly one of his favorite things, because now he can start issuing reprimands and orders. As before, the manager is operating from the assumption that he knows what right and wrong is for every situation, and is therefore very judgmental.
It goes without saying that there is little enjoyment of this particular process of working together. The perfectionistic manager has created a destination-focused environment, devoted to achieving perfection and never making a mistake along the way. Therefore, instead of celebrating victories and achievement, the team breathes a sigh of relief for having dodged a bullet. It can be a very demoralizing environment for the entire team.
As always, the meeting wraps up neatly after the manager has seized control and begins issuing orders. The team expected this. Everyone tells him what they anticipate he wants to hear, in the way he prefers to hear it, and he gets to show that he knows what is best. He receives no new ideas, no valuable feedback that could help the company, the department, or him personally. However, he has gotten the reward of ruling according to perfection. When the manager dismisses the team, everyone files out quickly, relieved that yet another quarterly presentation is over.
The Alternate View: Demanding Excellence
Now we explore the same scenario, with the same group of people – but this time, the manager leads the team from a place of demanding excellence.
The team files in the conference room, bringing with them relaxed conversation and cheerful morning greetings from outside. They are really looking forward to delivering the presentation, because they have put in extra time and thought to make sure it can be the best it can possibly be. The team’s collaborative work sessions developing the presentation had been very, very creative and everyone is excited to show their manager what they came up with.
The members of the team really appreciate their manager. He is quite supportive. Most importantly, he repeatedly assures members of the team that mistakes are OK because they teach us what we need to improve. So when a mistake is made, the team, or individual, learns from the mistake and moves on.
Unburdened by the need to be perfect, and encouraged by their manager, the team is willing to take risks on the quest to produce the best work they are capable of. As a result, the team is constantly learning and improving their processes, workflows, and work outputs. In this process of gradual and constant improvement, they are expressing substantial power and momentum.
Over time, the team’s power and momentum has given rise to incredible creativity and spontaneous inspiration. The team resides in a learning orientation characterized by openness. Instead of judging and assessing everything, the team listens and observes, gathering the best information they are capable of receiving.
It may be evident that not only is the manager and his team getting a lot of incredible work done as they pursue excellence in all their activities – they are also having a great deal of fun as they go, enjoying the journey as much as the destination. Morale is high, and each member of the team derives great meaning and satisfaction from participation.
One important key to getting the most out of your team is demanding excellence. Instead of ordering people around and attempting to control them, invite them into desired outcomes and empower them as partners, capable of devising their own solutions, in their own way. Coach and mentor them through the process. And most importantly, budget time and psychological bandwidth for mistakes to occur in the process. While everyone makes mistakes, it is also true that groups of people are capable of more than most can imagine when they begin collaborating, learning, and achieving together.
Hallett Leadership offers two-day workshops that initiate the process of transforming your organization into a place where excellence is the new normal. Please get in touch if you would like to explore the possibility of hosting such an event at your company.