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Focus on excellence, not perfection

Trying to achieve perfection at all costs is counterproductive and hurts your leadership and productivity. Here's how to cultivate excellence instead, both in yourself and in others.

5 min read


An arrow just missing the bullseye


In previous productivity steps, we planned our work (Step 1) put systems into place to keep our people informed and in sync (Step 2) and rolled up our sleeves to get work done (Step 3) This post goes deeper on Step 4, sustaining for maximal productivity.

As a teacher and, later, in my role of school administrator, I was often concerned with all my materials being “just right.” My worksheets needed to not only properly engage students in the content, but they had to be visually pleasing and properly formatted.

As head of school, I would carefully edit each newsletter and the student handbook, among other things. If my name was on it, it needed to be “perfect.” Of course, this approach took much of my time and limited my effectiveness in other ways.

Another sustainability tip is to focus on excellence, not perfection. For many perfectionists (this author included), it is hard to “settle” on doing good work. We want to do great work. Actually, we insist on perfect work. Every time. (This is called “maladaptive perfectionism.”)

We do this because it satisfies our egos and leads us to think that others will more readily accept our work, especially when we feel insecure about our skills and our capacity to satisfy others.

But seeking to produce perfect work (even if that were possible) slows us down and decreases output. It focuses us on dotting each “i” and crossing all the “t”s rather than producing more in other areas and projects. So, instead of perfection, pursue excellence. You will still get solid results, and others will be more than satisfied.

The difference between perfection and excellence is that with excellence, you may strive to do your absolute best, but you also allow yourself to accept failure and mistakes as you learn from them. Whereas, with perfection, you can never live with (let alone admit to) error or weakness. Everything must be always perfect.

When we strive for excellence, we maintain high standards. High standards can encourage us to think creatively, solve problems, stick to deadlines and commitments, and do quality work. Perfectionism, however, is an impossibly high standard. It leaves no room for error and is harsh on the mistake-maker.

When we pursue excellence or high standards, we come to value the process as well as the outcome. We know that the learning, fun, relationships and memories that we build along the way are often as important as the outcome. When we value the process, we are better equipped to weather life’s ups and downs because we know that the outcome isn’t always a reflection of our effort, skills or intelligence.

In contrast, perfectionists are results-focused, not process-focused. They tend to only see what they did wrong and can’t find much value in doing something imperfectly, such as learning, growing, and striving for a goal. This kind of perfectionist thinking can also be used to justify a success-at-any-cost mindset.

Think about people you know who end up compromising their health and relationships in the name of winning or achieving. (Numerous studies have linked perfectionism to procrastination, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety, severe stress, low self-esteem, and even suicide.

Perfectionism can also negatively affect the morale and effectiveness of a team. Perfectionists often find it difficult to meet deadlines, delegate work, and accept constructive criticism. They often micromanage teammates even when they do delegate tasks, spending so much time checking and rechecking their work that they decrease their personal productivity.

Perfectionists often struggle to sign off on a project, regardless of whether they miss a deadline or run over budget. Missed deadlines can cause the team embarrassment, can result in a loss of reputation and delay important projects or undermine their business case.

If you notice this happening, help them to understand the cost implications of their actions. Encourage them to organize their workload, and help them to schedule their time effectively so that they can avoid missing deadlines. Another thing you can do for them is place them in roles that play to their strengths, such as ones with limited scopes and that are detail-focused.

Another issue is mindset. Perfectionists often have a fixed mindset and will only attempt things they know they can do and share the things that they think will receive positive responses. People who strive for excellence still want to do things well, but they possess a growth mindset and are open to challenges. They maintain a core group of people with whom they can be vulnerable. They know when to push harder and when to stop work and share the finished product.

The perfectionist believes that if you do your work perfectly, you can avoid all criticism, and nobody can diminish your value. Of course, it never quite works out that way. At work (as with everything we do,) someone will provide some feedback, and not always of the positive variety. The perfectionist will then double down on perfect the next time. This leads to a high level of self-induced stress and pressure.

This is not to suggest that perfectionists mean badly. I sure didn’t. I was deeply committed to my work, as well as to each student’s and organization’s respective successes.

And it bears noting that in some instances, a job or task needs to be perfect. This could be when you’re sending things out to clients, rolling out a new product or when large amounts of money are at stake. Perfectionists can be assets in these situations, so find a balance.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is an executive coach who helps leaders and their teams become more productive. Download his productivity blueprint and take his productivity assessmentReach out to him to learn more about his high-powered mastermind groups that help leaders power up, problem solve, and get more done.

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