Enough Is Enough

  • Cynthia Johnson

One of the scales on the Challenge of Change questionnaire is titled Perfect Control.  The higher your score the stronger your perfectionist and controlling tendencies are, and on the course we emphasise that low scores are the goal. We are not saying the work is never perfect – books have to balance and you can't have a spelling mistake on a billboard – but that's not the sort of work that trips up people high in perfect control.  More typically, these are the people you see going over and over (and over!) plans, graphs, emails, etc., double-checking and checking again that it's "right". They're also likely to be the people staying late, putting on the finishing touches and making the presentation just perfect – they find it almost impossible to say "enough now".  For people high on Perfect Control the cost is when they find themselves spending too much time and effort on one task when their attention needs to be given to another.

What drives perfectionists is the anxiety about not delivering perfection.  People high on this scale like to be in control of what is happening and to have things done their way, and when this isn't happening they start to feel frustrated and stressed (not surprisingly, there is a relationship between perfect control and rumination). They tend to think people get away with a standard of work that is too low.  They get anxious when they have to delegate or let go of work, fretting that others won't do it well enough. They may try to temper this with giving precise instructions about how the job is to be done and putting in place frequent feedback check-ins.

The real problem is perfect controllers fail to see where the most value is added, and ignore the 80/20 rule, proposed originally by the economist Vilfredo Pareto.  The rule shows that 80% of task outcomes are derived from 20% of the effort devoted them, and it takes the form of a steep initial gain which levels off at the point where more effort no longer yields significant gains.  Your best work is likely to come toward the beginning and middle of the project.  Fluffing around at the end adds no significant value, and you run the risk of getting yourself agitated and frustrating others if you're constantly double checking their work, changing words in the report because you have a different way of expressing the same thing, and re-doing the PowerPoint.

Different tasks require different levels of perfection, and the problem for people high on this scale is that they can't differentiate between them. If you apply the same standards to everything you do, you won't possibly be able to manage the work load and will feel disheartened and stressed.  You may find yourself complaining that the expectations are unrealistic, but I often wonder whose expectations these people are referring to?  Here are some steps you can take if you're a perfect controller:

  1. Stop being so hard on yourself. If you aren't getting negative feedback and no one is asking you to do it again, your work is good enough, even if you feel you could have done better.
  2. Begin by asking yourself what work needs most of your attention.  Where can you add value that others can't.  What is your unique value?  Focus your attention there.  Ask: while I am attending to this, what isn't getting my attention?
  3. Remember that 80% of the value you add will be in the first 20% of the work.  Are you spending 80% of your effort finishing off the last pieces off?
  4. Ask to be shown examples of what the end effort looks like.  Listen to the critical voice in your head insisting you could do better.  Maybe you could, and maybe you should, but would anyone care or notice? Would people actually pay for that difference? Ask what feedback was received last time and maybe chose just one aspect where you could improve it.
  5. Try letting go of some of the smaller stuff and asking others to do it.  Watch your tendency to want to control how they do it.  Instead say something like "if you need any ideas, feel free to ask me." You will want to know that progress is being made, so schedule a set time rather than repeatedly dropping by the desk to check up! If you feel brave enough, ask the person to suggest how often they would like to schedule check-ins.  Find a half way point if you have to.  Watch yourself wanting more information – change the route you go to get your coffee if you can't help looking over their shoulder each time you pass their desk.
  6. When you let go of something, busy yourself with something else that equally requires your attention.  There is lots which could benefit from your magic and abilities but not all need it

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