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Lead Your Team Managing

Good Enough! How Employee Perfectionism Can Hurt a Company

Good Enough! How Employee Perfectionism Can Hurt a Company
Perfectoin may not be the best quality in an employee / Credit: Perfection image via Shutterstock

Most successful people always strive do the best they can do. But this habit in your employees is likely costing your company significantly. When employees do their best on everything, it means they are wasting a lot of time needlessly improving upon tasks that are best stopped at "good enough."

How can you tell when "good enough" is a better solution than doing one's best?  Here is the acid test: Other than making you look good, does the extra effort help achieve an important goal?  For most corporate tasks, that important goal should eventually result in growing your company's earnings, even tangentially.

If the extra effort fails the acid test, how do you as a manager encourage your well-meaning employees to not waste time on striving for perfection when "good enough" is what is warranted?  The key is in communicating expectations clearly. We once gave someone at our company a task and said, "You can't get this wrong," by which we meant that there is no right answer. What did that person hear? "You had better get this right or else!" Needless to say, the person was striving for perfection before we discovered the misperception. [5 Simple Ways to Become a Better Leader]

In addition to giving very clear directions, be wary of questions that shouldn't be answered. Good managers are curious people and accustomed to asking questions. However, if you ask a question whose answer satisfies your curiosity but does not help you make a decision, you have just sent your employees off to do a task that fails the acid test. 

Lastly, watch out for your own perfectionist traits that you may be unknowingly encouraging in your team.  We worked with a team who was so traumatized by the boss's complaints about formatting and typos that they would not present any document to the boss that was not absolutely perfect.

Here are three typical situations in which perfectionism is a hindrance:

Writing and polishing presentations. To make sure your team spends time on content but not on format, create a standard one-page template that encourages a summary of key facts and issues.

Providing value that is not needed. When you ask your team for information, they may waste time collecting far more than you need.  They will try to anticipate every follow-up question you might have to avoid disappointing you, even when you just needed a quick estimate of one fact.  If your team serves another division in your company, spend time reviewing your team's output with your internal client to make sure they value the work done by your team.

Email 'rabbit holes.' If you or members of your team send torturously detailed emails that take a long time to compose and polish and revise and edit, teach people to follow this simple rule: If you can't say it clearly in three sentences, pick up the phone and talk to the other person. This will prevent miscommunications.

It is common human behavior to put too much value on how going the extra mile might reflect on us in the moment while putting too little value on how ignoring more important tasks affect us and the company in the long run. But while you and your team are doing the best job possible unnecessarily, important tasks await you.

Mom was right about many things: look both ways before crossing the street, always wear clean underwear. But mom got this one wrong — sometimes you just shouldn't strive to do your best.

Jeremy Eden and Terri Long are co-authors of Low Hanging Fruit: 77 Eye-Opening Ways to Improve Productivity and Profits (Wiley, 2014) and the co-CEOs of Harvest Earnings, an advisory services firm that helps companies to engage their employees in growing earnings and improving the customer experience. They have helped companies like PNC Financial, H.J. Heinz, and Manpower to reduce costs and increase revenues by millions of dollars. Jeremy has decades of consulting and performance improvement experience in business, including at McKinsey & Co. Terri was in the corporate banking world for 18 years before joining Jeremy more than a decade ago.

Originally published on Business News Daily.