The Perfect Corporate Culture Doesn’t Exist

Have you ever noticed how pervasive “perfection” is in our language?

  • The phrase “perfect storm” is used to describe a “rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically.”
  • Baseball pitchers strive for throwing a “perfect” game
  • We describe something we think is beautiful as “picture perfect”
  • Two people who have never met before are “perfect strangers”

Perfectionism isn’t limited to solely to our language, either. As a practice, The Quest for Perfect shows up on a regular basis in the workplace, oftentimes as a byproduct of a company’s culture. When thinking of how workplace culture shapes employee behavior, a senior leadership work team that I consulted with comes to mind. The team was comprised of the top six leaders of a small manufacturing company and they were grappling with trust issues. We were working offsite, trying to come up with some workable operating guidelines to ensure a more trusting, productive environment.

At one point, a Vice President dared to bring up a sensitive subject, saying, “We are so demanding of each other, there’s absolutely no room for mistakes.” We explored this issue for a few minutes, with several people contributing their perspectives. Finally, the leader of the team (who held the title General Manager) blurted out in frustration, “Jennifer, you simply don’t understand! Quality is one of our company’s core values. We’re at nearly zero defects per million on our products. We live and breathe perfection. It’s who we are.”

Yes, indeed, Mr. General Manager. Your Culture of Perfection, while admirable for creating superior products, is eroding the relationships of the senior management team. Our discussion then took a very interesting turn in which I was able to share an alternate perspective on perfection:

Strive for perfection in process and grace with people.

A process doesn’t have feelings, but people do. When team members demand relentless perfection of one another in the workplace, they create unrealistic expectations for both work output and interpersonal effectiveness. This is not a call for tolerating mediocrity. On the contrary, in the workplace people should continually seek process improvement. All the while, they must be mindful: The creatures in charge of the process are human. Mistakes happen. People misjudge situations. Tempers flare. As humans, it’s what we do.

Expecting perfection in the way humans relate to one another is like expecting every golf game to have a hole-in-one shot.

Expecting perfection in the way humans relate to one another is like expecting every golf game to have a hole-in-one shot. It’s unrealistic. Back to our struggling leadership team: we invested time defining areas in which “perfection” was an appropriate goal, and situations in which we should encourage a more forgiving stance. We also discussed that pesky gray area of “good enough”. As you might expect, there were varying opinions on when something should be deemed “good enough” to pass inspection, whether it was a process, a document or an interpersonal relationship.

All in all, it was a fruitful discussion. Even though we didn’t create the definitive list (there’s no “perfect” list, after all!), we did bring this issue out into the open and develop some perspective around it. Here’s the rub: this company was “successful” by nearly every measure. The senior leadership team was committed to its core values. The company was profitable and had steady growth, quality products and employee satisfaction. The company’s culture highly influenced achievement in these metrics. That’s a good thing. Even so, this company still wasn’t perfect. All workplaces, even the highly productive and positive ones, have their downsides because corporate cultures, like the humans that comprise them, are dynamic, influential and yes, flawed.

The General Manager had his eyes opened that day. He realized that the culture he helped to create, while enviable, still had it drawbacks. His company’s culture of perfection wasn’t so much a problem to be “fixed” so much as it was a dynamic to acknowledge and direct. Leaders of organizations who recognize this and create interpersonal practices that allow some compassion for people’s humanity are the ones who create vibrant, sustainable corporate cultures. Imperfections and all.

Updated 2022

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