In the early days of software (when every application came with manual), I took a class for technical writers. Our first homework assignment was to write directions for how to make tea. Several of my classmates had questions such as what kind of tea? Was it in a bag or loose? The instructor said he would provide no other details except for the original task: Write directions for how to make tea.
When class re-assembled the following week, the instructor asked the students to turn in their homework. He shuffled through the responses and chose several to present to the class. Before presenting, he requested the class hold all comments and questions until after all the submissions were reviewed. Then, he placed the first page of Paul Perfectionist’s directions on the projector. “That’s mine!” You could see him visibly puff up. Because his directions were first up, they were likely the standard.
Paul had put together an exhaustive set of detailed directions. No detail was too small, no action overlooked, no exception left out. Paul wrote step-by-step how to unwrap the box of tea, what size pot to select for boiling water, how to turn on the faucet, how to put water into the pot, how to turn on the stove (or light a stove, if necessary), how to set a timer for boiling water. He created a branch for the benefits of a tea kettle verses a pot, how to choose a cup, how to lay the tea bag in the cup. He had an alternate scenario for loose tea, including explanations of tea balls, strainers, and cozies…a couple shots of images for tea…all-in-all, there were more than five pages of directions for making tea.
The instructor continued with the next set of directions, which was also lengthy, but not nearly as exhaustive as Paul’s. The instructor slowly continued on replacing page-after-page of instructions offering no comment on any of the efforts.
I’ve spent a lifetime as a teacher and corporate writer; I knew where this was going. I sat back and began to look around the room. I could see some of the students’ body language had already changed. Shoulders hunched, furrowed brows — they looked confused, worse ashamed. Had they misunderstood the assignment? Was this more complicated than they originally thought? Self-doubt descended like a fog.
As the presentation continued, the directions became significantly briefer. One student (who had asked about loose or bag), wrote “One bag = 2 Tbls,” which I recall thinking was exceedingly clever copy for tea packaging. I remember Paul rolled his eyes when I complimented the writer on the usefulness of that line, “That doesn’t even tell you how to make tea!” he scoffed. The last submission displayed was, “Add hot water. Enjoy.”
The projector went off. The lights went on. Paul was beaming with pride. “So,” the instructor began, “Which of these directions do you think is the best?”
“The last one,” I said quickly and with conviction.
“I agree,” the instructor responded.
Now, if you thought that Paul had a “ah-hah!” moment, you have little experience with the detail-obsessed, perfectionist disorder. On the contrary, Paul was PISSED OFF! Without a second of reflection, he launched into a full-scale attack on his classmates and the instructor. The others didn’t understand the complexity of tea, and that’s why he detailed out every approach to it. These brief responses indicated his colleagues were lazy and didn’t want to do the homework. It’s clear they took a short-cut in the assignment, which is why they wrote so little. Paul assured everyone that he had spent a lot of time working on this, and making tea was much, much, more complicated than we really knew. No one had even thought to include images! What if someone didn’t know what a teabag looked like!
My personal impatience with the narcissism of perfectionists notwithstanding, I gleefully threw coal in his furnace and offered that I wrote no directions at all; rather, I documented an audience assumption that tea – a staple of every kitchen in every culture – is something the audience or purchaser would already know how to make. It’s not an enchilada.
Other real-world rejections of Paul’s work quickly followed: Tea does not come with directions now, why would we need them in the future? No tea company would ever create collateral or change packaging to accommodate five pages of directions. No one buying tea would ever read a five-page insert if they did. Another pointed out that Paul’s directions (literally) included a section on how to boil water! Knowing how to boil water was the same reason light bulbs didn’t come with directions. Ha-ha. The class chuckled, the fog of self-doubt lifted, and there was a sigh of relief from those who had not crafted lengthy directions. Paul, however, was not amused. He insisted that it was possible some men could not know how to boil water or turn on a stove (although most women were likely to know this, he conceded). Then, finally after all his other defenses were exhausted, Paul played the “safety” card (aka: the Hail Mary of all corporate disagreements), and strongly asserted that without directions someone might burn themselves or ingest the tea bag, which could result in a law suit…
Paul was a student in a class of colleagues, so the ability to critique his work is assumed. That is rarely the case in real-life. Imagine if Paul Perfectionist were a manager, lead or (heaven forbid) stakeholder? Given Paul’s predilection toward perfectionism, if he were someone’s boss do you think he would be open to a less-detailed approach or would he just see that as sloppy? What are the chances that a peer – never mind subordinate – could call Paul out on his emotional need for detail? Even if some courageous person did tell Paul he was being ridiculous, do you think the rest of the group would jump in and support their colleague’s “sloppy approach” compared to Paul’s exhaustive completeness? Lastly, with so much ego and emotion displayed by Paul, even if the group felt that Paul’s directions were expensive or might result in a negative outcome, how likely is it that they would coalesce to fight actively against him? Or do think it’s more likely the group would just “deal” with Paul because they have families to support and just don’t have the energy to argue with him anymore….?
Paul and Polly Perfectionists exist in every business. What all these perfect people have in common is the same narcissistic misconception that they – alone – can assure quality. We euphemistically call them “bottlenecks” or say they need “special hand-holding.” In private, we call them high-maintenance PITAs, and tell colleagues to circumvent them because do nothing but cause spin and churn.
Perfectionists are the most destructive of leaders and teammates because they talk non-stop about quality, but they don’t listen to quality. Quality is not a person. Quality is not a checklist. Quality is a process. A quality processes requires a team, and the perfectionists of the world never have a good one because teams require honesty, communication, and trust. Perfectionists don’t understand that state of being. Their lives are filled with fear, suspicion, and distrust. It haunts them at work; it strains their personal relationships. A Paul Perfectionist may run a team, but he rarely considers himself a part of that team because – qualitatively – he is sure he is above the others and perfectionism is not a flaw.
Excellence is a value; Perfectionism is an insecurity.
Everyone should take pride in his/her work, everyone should have input, but when I see over-engineered and voluminous solutions, I don’t think, “Ahh, so smart!” Rather, I corner my teammate(s) 1:1 and ask questions. Inevitably, I’ll hear “Yeah, we had to do <whatever> because <controlfreakperfectionist> is a PITA, which is why we’re <late/over budget/short staffed>. Avoid them if you can….”
Over the course of my career, I have been amazed at the number of high-priced consultants and internal project teams who churn away days and weeks of expensive time adding linguistic dandruff to presentations, plans and proposals whose only goal is to sooth the emotions and ego of someone who is sure they’re adding quality. CapEx budgets become bloated by stakeholder reviews and timelines are delayed all because no one going to jeopardize the financial stability of their family by telling Paul Perfectionist that we don’t need five pages of directions on how to make tea.
The instructor cornered Paul during break and tried to talk him down, which was not easy because perfectionists are quite sure that you aren’t smart enough to see the world as clearly as they, and who are you to criticize their drive for perfection anyway?
The instructor explained to Paul the purpose of the class (and education, in general) was to challenge pre-conceived notions. Audience is the most important consideration in any communication, and Paul did not consider his when writing his directions. Although Paul reluctantly agreed that perhaps boiling water was a bit much, he would not relent on the other stuff. Besides, even if fewer directions were acceptable, more paperwork and detail is always better. I mean, this is tea, sure, but in real-life, in business, there would never be a time where more documentation or direction would be worse, right?
The instructor asked Paul to keep an open mind, and then politely turned to another student who had been patiently waiting.
Paul never came back to class.
Excerpted from: The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker. Copyright 2017 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow on Twitter and Facebook @TheTempJob
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