February 23, 2007

Striving for perfection

Something Like Life
Feb. 23, 2007

ARE you a perfectionist?

Do you drive your staff nuts poking your nose in every little detail of the work they do, allowing them nary a chance to breathe and come up for air?

Do you find yourself taking over your staff’s work when you think the window of success is closing, then you blame yourself constantly for hiring “stupid idiots” to do challenging jobs?

And, by the way, don’t you think you’re giving yourself a heart attack?

How about you? Is your boss a perfectionist?

Do you, every once in a while, think of hiring an assassin to get rid of him just because of the way he snarls you into submission to do your job his way?

Do you feel no longer challenged at work because even if you think you’ve done a good job, your boss is still going to blast you for allegedly being too slow, inefficient or incompetent?

Perfectionist managers are present in any company or organization. Sometimes they can be good for the institution because top management can count on such obsession for perfection to ensure a project is ably completed and on time. On the other hand, perfectionist managers can end up as the stumbling blocks to the efficient operation of an organization. Instead of becoming leaders, they become obsessive-compulsive micromanagers.

Take Harvey, for instance. He was appointed head of his department in a rather distinguished company in Makati City just two years ago. It was a promotion long overdue; after all, he had invested most of his working life in that company. He was self-sacrificing to a fault, according to his friends, and would rather stick it out even when all his colleagues had left the company. He was just optimistic that things would eventually turn around.

Harvey was the type who would do overtime work even when it wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t because he was sucking up to his bosses. It was because he was just a workaholic at heart. So when he was promoted, his friends gave him a grand party. He truly deserved it. Even his colleagues at work felt Harvey should have gotten the top post in the sales department years ago.

After a few months, Harvey’s staff started grumbling and complaining among themselves about the way he rode them hard. It was as if he was forcing them, people who were just his equals before, to adopt his own work habits, to the point that they were sometimes asked to sacrifice their weekends to make sure their sales quotas were met before cut-off dates. He would constantly nag them for updates on their new contacts. He was so uptight that some of his staff even began defying him and arguing with him at every turn. Everyone in the department was just tense every day, and absenteeism levels began rising—which the HRD manager finally brought to Harvey’s attention.

Leaders are defined as people who inspire their employees or staff to do the best work they can and achieve success on their own merits.

Executives like Harvey, however, have a difficult time letting go and delegating work because of their inordinately high fear of failure. They always feel that they have to be 100 percent on top of things, so much so that they sometimes would do the job themselves rather than risk being called an incompetent manager.

Perfectionist managers are often obsessive about minute details, highly critical of their staff, are controlling, demanding and basically insecure. They associate failures with feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing. They are generally on the defensive and unable to accept suggestions and especially criticisms that will make them even more acutely aware of their inadequacies, imagined or not.

Managers like Harvey fail to be make the transition to becoming leaders because they focus too much on their own anxieties instead of being sensitive to his staff’s needs. They don’t realize that being a leader is really like being a conductor who holds his baton and coaxes each musician to play his particular instrument to the right tune and tempo of the music sheet before them. With each passing wave of the baton, different harmonies are created by each section in the orchestra, finally coming together to produce one beautiful symphony. The conductor never gets down from the podium to join the orchestra and play an instrument himself.

Managers like Harvey feel that because they’ve invested so much of themselves in their jobs or in their companies, they have no right to relax. They will stress the importance of hard work over getting results. Such behavior often leads to underperformance, excessively high turnovers, and general lack of motivation among staff. For managers to believe that their departments will fall apart just because they will go on a business trip or take a leave of absence even for just a day, is a clear sign of a lack of trust in their staff’s ability to do well.

Part of the job of being a leader-manager is being able to spot the outstanding employees in his crew, and train them to undertake bigger challenges that an eventual higher position will involve. In a perfect world, a leader is supposed to share and impart his knowledge, so that one day, when he is long gone or may have been promoted to an even higher position, somebody from his staff can be trusted with his old job. And even if mistakes are made by the staff, as surely these will happen, these are always something to learn from. Managers should never shy away from the “teaching” challenges that staff mistakes and failures will offer. No one should be crucified for stumbling a little.

If you have a boss who is a perfectionist, you can probably try to understand where he is coming from. Often, the root of a person’s bad behavior is some particular insecurity, so don’t go blaming yourself or your performance when he goes ballistic.

Instead of taking a confrontational approach, learn to deal with your boss’s obsessive intrusions in your work. If you like the company you work in, investing in your relationship with your boss will be worth the truckloads of shit he will dump on you.

Pay careful attention to details and to the instructions he gives so when you are able to do your job well, he may begin trusting you to do your work on your own. Just be patient. Miracles will not happen overnight. Making a voodoo doll in your boss’s image and sticking it with pins will not make him go away.

If you feel confident in taking up the problem of your boss’s perfectionism with him, try to discuss it respectfully by emphasizing that you are after the same thing as he is—the success of your project or company. You can try disarming him with your sense of humor and hopefully make him lighten his mood, not to mention his load on you. Perfectionist managers tend to take themselves too seriously, so it’s up to you to help him relax and see the humor in your jobs.

It certainly is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. When a manager is told that his perfectionism may be endangering the efficiency of the company, he must first learn to accept it in order to change. He will have to honestly assess himself and examine the underlying causes of his controlling nature. Hopefully, when he is ready to make that first step toward reform, his staff will be there to support him every step of the way.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. Photo from BusinessMirror)

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