Progress over perfection: What does it mean for a burned-out, busy team


In times of increased burnout and growing workloads, chasing perfect can be both time wasting and soul destroying.
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Overloaded with work? Too much to do? Working extra hours that don’t seem to make much difference? You could be striving for that elusive goal known as perfection.

Perfectionism might be put forward as the best negative characteristic we possess or pitched as a weakness when we’re asked in job interviews, but it’s not a practice we should be aspiring to.

Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill’s landmark research found our perfectionistic traits are on the increase, and to our detriment. Psychological ill health, unrealistic expectations and heightened stress, anxiety and depression are just some of the pains that result from pursuing the unattainable perfect.

In times of increased burnout and growing workloads, chasing perfect can be both time wasting and soul destroying.

Perfection shows up at work

Faultless outcomes and perfect results aren’t a human expectation reserved only for cooking, designing or do-it-yourself home renovation projects. It’s a generational concern and shows up in all walks of life, including at work.

Leaders and teams can observe regularly to see if perfectionism is the culprit in slowing progress, blocking decision-making or causing inertia, inaction or other barriers to achieving results.

Five areas for focus

Check in on these five areas where perfectionism can show up in a team’s day-to-day work and performance:

  1. Late delivery: Could perfectionism be slowing the team’s ability to deliver projects, tasks and work on time? Do team members say they don’t have time or space to take on other tasks because they’re endeavouring to complete current tasks to an unrealistic standard? Is there a fixed mindset that there is only one way to complete a specific task?
  • Big chunks: Are team members waiting until a piece of work is fully completed before seeking input and collaboration from colleagues? Do they say ‘it’s not finished – yet’ rather than seeking the more useful ‘frequent and early’ input and feedback?
  • Perfect the first time: Progress can slow when perfectionist tendencies expect the perfect-looking presentation or slide deck, the most perfect graphs and data visualisations for a report, or the best policy and procedures manuals without anything missing. Is there a belief the first draft or first version needs to be complete, perfect and faultless? Do team members understand how revisions, feedback and iterative work can help improve a piece of work over time?
  • Mistakes are bad: Is there a mindset that making a mistake is career-ending at worst or career-limiting at best? Do team members fear their work needs to be 100% correct, accurate and faultless… every time?
  • Everything always perfect: Are all tasks and projects seen as being of equal importance and need to be completed perfectly? Do people reach deadlocks and roadblocks as they await the completion of the perfect paragraph, heading or chart for a report? How might higher standards of completion be applied to some activities and lesser standards tolerated for other tasks?

Beyond these issues, it can be equally frustrating when a ‘back and forward’ process of sign-off or approval of documentation occurs and only slight changes are made each time the work is returned. Some requests can seem trivial such as ‘make the font a bit bigger’ or ‘make this table smaller’ or ‘change this word for that.’ Deadlines can be missed, and pressure builds up as the team struggles to complete tasks while perfectionists make never-ending corrections and revisions.

Satisficing over maximising

A health marketing team experienced the endless pursuit of perfect information when collecting data, creating case studies, chasing perfect stories and faultless photography. But this practice of searching for the best is known as ‘maximising’. While it sounds impressive, it results in endless searching … and then dissatisfaction with the results.

Instead, the practice of ‘satisficing’, coined by economist Herbert Simon, indicates a better, more productive goal. The combined meanings of satisfactory plus sufficing, helps ensure the work we’re doing is a suitable match to the task at hand.

It’s also insightful to remember that software developers and technology companies apply incremental and iterative work practices when creating their products and services. They know the first versions or pieces of work can be extended, expanded and improved on over time after initial testing and feedback. And they know this is a more productive, economical and sustainable way to create their products and services.

Newer and better ways of getting things done are evolving in the modern world of work.

Even if we think we’re completing a task in the best way possible, evolutions in productivity, progress and work design are being made all the time.

Check in with the team to gauge their attitudes, perceptions and practices and whether they are engaged in the fruitless pursuit of the perfect result. Making progress over time always ends up being preferred.

Lynne Cazaly is a work futurist and expert in new ways of thinking, leading and working. She is a keynote speaker and 10 x author. Find out more at