Skip to Content

Expecting Perfection Could Actually Make Bad Employees

Actors Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson on set of the Miramax movie "Clerks" , circa 1994. Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives — Getty Images

The MPW Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: How do you embrace imperfection as part of professional development? is by Rachel Mendelowitz, managing partner at McChrystal Group,

Many leaders would likely agree with the saying ‘failure is not an option.’ This is an understandable perspective, as logic and intuition would lead most of us to think that fewer errors leads to higher success.

However, this is not always the case.

For companies to succeed in today’s fast paced environment, they must embrace imperfection. Creating a no-fail atmosphere eliminates the vulnerability critical to innovation at the organizational level and professional development at the individual level.

In order to learn in a complex environment, trial and error is not only inevitable, it is actually the only effective way to navigate through uncertainty. Although it is incredibly uncomfortable, exposing and acknowledging when we fall short on performance is actually the very thing that drives higher performance.

Aside from the impact on individuals, fear of failure can also be toxic to corporate culture— if one person doesn’t feel comfortable being vulnerable, it’s likely his or her teammates won’t either. This can easily become a problem when your team is tasked to come up with new and innovative ways to do business—demands for perfection can stifle creativity and lower engagement.

See also: This Is What Happens When You Embrace Your Failures

The question is how leaders can encourage their team to feel comfortable about failing, creating a culture where imperfections are embraced.

Leaders who foster an environment of vulnerability know that they aren’t creating weakness. Quite the opposite – they challenge people to stretch themselves, demand interpersonal courage, take on new challenges, and model outsized poise and resilience in the face of adversity.
Most importantly, being vulnerable at work is a two-way street— it requires daring on the part of the employee trying something new, and support on the part of the manager in responding to this attempt, when it succeeds and especially when it fails.

Here are a few ways to build this vulnerability on your own team:

Encourage ‘stupid’ questions. It may seem obvious to you, but your team likely doesn’t have the broader strategic perspective that you do. Seemingly “stupid” questions can actually highlight where you have failed as a leader to provide direction or enough emphasis.

Offer to help without judgment. Just as how you shouldn’t be afraid to request help, remember to not judge others when they ask for it. It’s natural to feel pride when asked for your expertise, but for one of my clients at a financial services firm, her pride was mixed with condescension rather than patience. Her typical responses to requests for help, “This is not that difficult…” or “I don’t have time for this …” created a culture where her employees spent unnecessary hours muscling through problems rather than face derision from their manager.

Enable creative thinking. Bold ideas move the needle forward, yet are often shut down in meetings by more experienced leaders who ‘just know that won’t work.’ One well-intentioned leader I worked with actually carried around a playbook intended to keep him and his team laser focused on their goals. Creative ideas were so clearly considered distractions that they were never even voiced. Instead, ‘waste’ a little time entertaining new thinking.

Try new things, even if they fail. Every organization seeks to be a “learning organization”, but we learn through both success and, more effectively, through failure. One leader I worked for was masterful at this. As a team, we chased zany ideas round and round until it became clear that we’d hit an insurmountable roadblock. At that point, she’d laugh and say, “You’re right, that won’t work!” She had the courage to abandon the idea without ego and the wisdom to know that the time was well spent. I can’t think of a single conversation that didn’t eventually give rise to something truly unique and useful.

Don’t be so quick to offer your perspective. Resist the compulsion to use your years of hard-earned experience to show why a new idea won’t work – it might not, but your knowledge is not a renewable resource for your employees; their own ability to learn and develop is what will pay dividends.

In short, we are doing ourselves a disservice by focusing with such intensity on who can solve today’s problems perfectly. Few roles are so static that we’ll be solving those same problems a few years or even a few weeks from now. Instead, leaders should apply that level of intensity on seeking out, retaining, and developing the most adaptable people who are skilled at failing and picking themselves back up. They are comfortable with vulnerability and learn rapidly as a result.

A workforce that admits it is imperfect and develops quickly – not in spite of that imperfection, but because of it – is one that can solve the problems we have not yet encountered.