Excellence vs Perfectionism

My experience has been that a culture of perfectionism in a team is toxic, and ultimately leads to lower outcomes overall, while a culture of excellence leads to both team health and great outcomes.

So how do we distinguish between the two?

Where is the line between excellence and perfectionism?

I believe that one of the key differences is that excellence is primarily about what goes into the work, while perfectionism is primarily about the result that comes out. 

A culture of excellence prioritises investing in the process – through discipline, hard work, creativity, strategy, good planning, attention to detail, ongoing personal development, execution follow-through, and so forth.

A culture of perfectionism obsesses over critiquing the outcomes, which can be affected by a variety of factors beyond the team’s control.

And that is the critical difference – control. 

An entrepreneur friend of mine once talked about his take on Stephen Covey’s ‘circles’ approach –

“Imagine there are two circles”, he said. “There’s your circle of control, which is everything that is within your power to control. Then there’s your circle of concern, which is everything that you focus on and allow to cause you worry and anxiety.” He explained that if those circles barely overlap, you will be highly stressed all the time. But the closer you can bring those circles into alignment, so they almost completely overlap, the more you’ll be able to focus on the things that matter. The more you concern yourself primarily with things within your control, the more you will ultimately thrive.

As Erwin McManus writes, “Everything in life that you try to control, that is outside your control, will steal from you your peace.”

Excellence takes the long view. Of course outcomes matter – but they matter most as a pattern of continual improvement over time. You cannot have a strong, healthy team consistently raising the bar over time if you teach people to be afraid to fail by obsessing over every little thing that wasn’t perfect about the results, including things affected by factors beyond their control. A culture of perfectionism burns people – it leaves behind a wake of jaded team members only willing to do what’s worked before. A culture of excellence knows that not every attempt will be a slam dunk, but encourages people to try new things because that’s part of growing. It’s the approach encapsulated in the motto of Bill Campbell, fabled Silicon Valley coach to Steve Jobs at Apple, the entire executive team at Google, and many others, as described in ‘Measure What Matters’. His motto? ‘Be better every day.’

Perfectionism is about a moment in time, but excellence is a trajectory.

Or, in the famous but often misattributed words of Will Durant (not Aristotle) – “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”