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Anti-Perfectionism Is on the Rise

Issue 121, August 10, 2023

Recently it has come to our attention, and no doubt yours as well, that some organizations are having a rough go at it stabilizing new workplace models. Hell, society itself seems to be generally on edge finding some new stabilizing normal way to make sense of our ongoing disruptive quality of life.

On the one hand in organizations, hybrid models have settled into a norm. On the other hand, many CEOs are ordering employees back into the office five days a week. On top of this asymmetrical approach, many executives are struggling with how to lead. The result is a mashup of what work looks like in mid-2023 and such a diversity of viewpoints on how an organization should adapt, even rise to the occasion, that it often results in knee jerk reactions.

Professional and Personal Value Metrics

What is today’s measure of successful workforce performance and how are we individually assessing our own personal and professional value? There is a connection between the two as well as a co-dependence.

Many argue that workforce performance has evolved to overall job satisfaction. The definition of job satisfaction, however, correlates to how many workers are now evaluating their own personal satisfaction. The connection brings together holistically what historically were two very separate selves: one at work and one at home.

Clearly, hybrid work helped debut an era where job satisfaction, in the new definition, has reached all-time highs, partly because being interested in your job is less important to workers than it used to be (Axios). This may sound like heresy to traditionalists, but it turns out that for many, job satisfaction is being happy even if you’re not excelling. Why? Perhaps as long as the bills are paid, one can be less stressed out at work balancing personal and family needs and wants.  Thus, the definition of the professional self has become very different than what it once was. It is no longer a question of “church and state.” Our personal and professional lives have become intertwined. We are no longer separate people at home and work.

This opens a Pandora’s Box of what work is worth if this societal trend continues. If ambition, then, has been thrown out the window (because really, who can have it all?), working from home enables more personal time in both concept and theory. So, distilling this down to basics: not being stressed and having time to explore personal interests (rather than cramming them into a week or two of annual vacation) seems to be more important than amassing large amounts of money … so, there goes the American Dream.

The American Dream Reassessed

We seem to have moved into an era where we are reassessing our lives, not by material gains and how many times we are mentioned on social media, but by its quality and experiences. These are moments when we feel fulfilled, laugh, smile or simply enjoy just being. This newfound perspective crosses all generations — but more so among Gen Z and the Alphas. Research on these next gens reveals that they are dealing with a pervasive sense of anxiety. It has been well reported that they are under emotional and psychological siege because of the economy, politics, shifts in career goals, decreasing value of higher education, debt associated with higher education, less earning potential … and yes, even the environmental deck is stacked against them. Their management tool seems to be f… it, let me just be happy. It’s not surprising that with their dire and fatalistic worldview, the pursuit of personal fulfillment, being satisfied, and enjoying the experiences of life, transcends traditional life goals.

Historically in the United States, the concept of the American Dream focused on professional accomplishments as the be-all, end-all in defining who we are, how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us. That dated mantra fueled the great economic success of the United States. But if we look around the globe today, there are other countries and regions where that mantra isn’t infused into the culture. Data would show that they are happier, more fulfilled and in most ways more successful than we are. Cases in point? Scandinavia and Bhutan ranked among the happiest countries in the world.

Any conversation about job satisfaction must take into account the geo-political and economic systems that influence local marketplaces. We would argue that everything is impacted and influenced by those around us, the societal structures we have created, the environment, and our workplaces. All these factors are in flux as we redefine work, how we work and what work is worth. This leads us back to perfectionism.


Here’s another way to think about it: Perfectionism may be on the decline. This sounds like a backlash against the high expectations that we have or have had regarding ourselves and society. The Economist reports that Rishi Sunak, England’s Prime Minister, says that perfectionism is his greatest weakness. “Perfectionism is increasingly out of step with the ways that products are developed, employees are treated, and workforces are organized.” This attitude cascades into a new workplace ethos. “Start with product development. Lots of digital types embrace the concept of the minimum viable product (mvp), in which companies ship prototypes that can be refined, or scrapped, on the basis of feedback from early adopters. The essence of the mvp approach is anti-perfectionism: don’t procrastinate, don’t spend time sweating the tiniest details, get your product into users’ hands and see how it does. Fussing about nice-to-have features is a waste of time; the market will hone things for you, dispensing its judgments cumulatively and dispassionately.” At 2040 we work with clients to grapple with the challenges of that philosophy. One size does not fit all, but many organizations are gently (and defensively) bowing to the pressure of their employees to take the road of less stress that may have more risk, errors, and failures, in a long-term view of success.

This emerging trend is going to challenge the status quo in terms of how we work, why we work and how organizations need to adapt to behavioral shifts. Perfectionists tend to be strident and weaker team players. They may be competent micromanagers but can also be unlikeable. So, it does come full circle back to job satisfaction based on well-being, not output. If you follow the news on mental health issues based on burnout, stress and depression among workers, anti-perfection may have a valid basis. And we may finally be coming to a consensus on the negative results of winning at all costs. One last word: Anti-perfectionism does not mean compromising high standards. The Economist reports, “The University of Ottawa found that people who strove for excellence did better on tests of creative thinking than people who sought perfection.” Read that sentence again; seeking excellence in any aspect of life does not mean you need to achieve perfection.

Challenging the Idea of Perfection

Meetings. How much time and energy do we waste attending meetings? According to Quartz, “One Microsoft report finds that the average Teams user saw a 252% jump in the time they spend in meetings weekly from 2020 to 2022. The number of meetings increased, too, shooting up more than 150% for workers across the globe. All that time in the meeting room whether virtual or IRL doesn’t leave much time to actually get things done.”

We would argue that dependence on endless meetings and over-processing falls into the domain of perfectionism. Successful online marketplace Shopify agrees. It has introduced a “meeting cost calculator” inside its meeting calendars! When employees plan a group brainstorm or project debrief, a calendar integration will look at the meeting’s length and invitees and calculate a price tag. Quartz reports, “For us, the dollar value is not the point says Shopify chief operating officer Kaz Nejatian. The tool is meant to nudge teams to reconsider whether they really need that stale team stand-up—and find more creative ways to collaborate with their time.” It sounds like Shopify needed this innovation to avoid pointless meetings. “Earlier this year, the company canceled 12,000 recurring meetings on employee calendars in a test to make employees rethink which gatherings were useful.”

Backlash Against Anti-Perfectionism

Some CEOs are flipping the collaboration and collective contribution model to a “Top Gun” approach to leadership. It’s a known fact that many organizations aspire to the well-oiled machine approach of military discipline and performance. According to The New York Times, “hundreds of companies are turning to unorthodox programs that use fighter pilot simulations, military principles and even NASCAR pit stop techniques to train business executives on responding to uncertainty and flux.” In fact, Christian Boucousis who is a former fighter pilot is CEO of Afterburner, “which promises to teach the same precision and accuracy as elite military aviators to clients.” Boucousis walks his talk, “If you lose sight of the airplane you’re fighting against, you lose the fight. We use that as a metaphor — if you lose sight of your business objectives, you’re not going to achieve them.”

Okay then. The office becomes a war zone. You rally the troops for new product and service launches. War is work. You win on the battlefield. This machismo ethos is perfectly manifested by Elon Musk and his Special Forces approach to management. As The Times reports, “During times of economic pressure, the chest-thumping can sometimes come back in full force.”

Yes, but. There are some important things to consider in the command-and-control approach. In support of the Top Gun style, some leaders really want a return to what used to be normal, where work just gets done, without all the touchy-feely stuff that permeates today’s workplaces. Some critics equate that touchy-feely stuff to organizations being “woke.” That term has become a flashpoint, dividing not uniting us. Perhaps we rethink woke as an awakening to the recognition of what we have been doing to ourselves.

Empathy has become the new measure of an enlightened leader. In the military, that level of personal empathy isn’t permitted. It is only about following orders, getting the work done, dealing with high risk, and rising above oneself to be part of a larger whole.

Yes, there is something to be said that when facing risk, do what’s necessary without question. Perfection is also necessary to limit the risk of human loss performing under the highest possible level of stress. We can learn lessons from the frontlines approach: knowing how to apply a well-trained reaction to a situation unlocks being able to identify how to practice this discipline in similar situations. You don’t have to overthink. However, following rote training isn’t a guarantee that the results will be what you hope for. Instead, that takes critical thinking and assessment in real-time, with incredible focus to assess any situation and not assume the past will predict the future.

Teamwork is also a factor. There is no doubt that teammate loyalty in the military is unsurpassed. The same cannot be said for business. In any organization, a team can work together normally, but can it perform collaboratively in a highly stressful situation? A few weeks ago our newsletter raised the question of how strong an influence organizational politics can be. Typically, that undermining tactic doesn’t happen in the military. The expectation is that you are a member of a team, have a role to play, you need to excel in that role, and protect your teammates.

So, the fighter pilot as a leadership coach sounds promising based on the organization and the situation. “It’s one-way leaders can try to regain a sense of control they feel they’ve lost over the last few years.” Cali Williams Yost, a workplace strategist adds, “They’re searching to reassert control and power in a way that feels familiar.” Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL, adds that “workplace chaos is pushing companies to rethink management, sometimes in extreme ways. The pandemic revealed that we need better leadership. When people aren’t coming into work and you no longer see them every day, you have to use better decentralized command. That’s a classic law of combat leadership.”

That said, not too many young upwardly mobile employees are going to buy into a hierarchical approach to leadership. Our opinion is that these next gen leaders are going to err on the side of anti-perfection, take risks, fail and fail fast, and move on.

Brief Notes on Boredom

The Navy SEAL school of management is a poster child for calculated perfection. But the employees among the troops may not be likely candidates for such high-performance expectations. Boredom is making headlines as an antidote to the pressure of rigidity and perfection. According to Axios, boredom motivates people to seek out novelty. Our minds wander when we’re bored, and we think of new things to try. With the constant surface noise of social, emails, texts and … meetings, taking a time out, practicing anti-perfectionism and pausing are essentials to refreshing and replenishing.

At 2040 we work with our clients to support their workforce with empathy and understanding on offering life/work balance to promote well-being.  We take the long view and believe that short-term perfection may lead to long-term dysfunction. We agree with a reminder from Farnam Street about a sensible approach to risk: “The gap between knowing what you want and going after it is where fear thrives. You don’t need enough courage for the entire journey. You only need courage for the next step.”

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