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Workplace success: Why imperfection is the new perfection

by Niamh Moynihan on

Cold sweat. Horrible feeling in pit of stomach. Panicky stabbing of keys on laptop. “Can I find a recall button?” 

You’ve just sent an email to your most senior contact “Please see attached”... without an attachment…

Some people will merely sigh or even laugh and send a new mail. To others, this is a nightmare. A true catastrophe. A blot on their reputation. A sign they are not perfect!

Even though these imperfect moments can be quite frustrating, I want to encourage you today: don't let them hold you back!

In this article, I explore the impact that the fear of making mistakes can have on our work and productivity, and how embracing a more realistic approach to our daily tasks can lead to greater success.

The pursuit of perfection: A double-edged sword

In a world where social media rules, the pressure to present a flawless, beautifully curated impression of our lives and work can be overwhelming. We see the carefully crafted success stories of others, and it's easy to forget that behind those polished facades, there are inevitably moments (or even phases) of struggle and failure.

This pursuit of perfection can have unintended consequences in our work lives. When faced with complex tasks or challenging situations, we may find ourselves slowing down, hesitating, or even avoiding taking action altogether, fearing the potential for mistakes. But how then to progress? How can we take on new challenges, projects, and roles if we are too afraid to put ourselves out there and try?

Look at it this way: Perfectionism breeds rigidity and unhappiness. Imperfections, when embraced with compassion, become a catalyst for growth and self-acceptance. 

The hidden cost of perfectionism

One of the key concepts I discuss in my workshops is setting realistic goals and deadlines. By all means, set yourself some stretch goals to keep in the back of your mind. But by setting unrealistic day-to-day expectations of ourselves, we end up putting ourselves under unnecessary pressure and stress. This can lead to longer working hours, missed deadlines, and a constant feeling of falling short, even when we're doing our best!

Unfortunately, hybrid work has served to exacerbate the problem. The complete lack of visible mistakes or imperfections in our hybrid or remote work environments creates a false perception of perfection. New team members may feel discouraged from asking for help or admitting when they're struggling, further perpetuating this cycle. How often does a newbie type out a question, only to delete it, fearing they'll be seen as inexperienced or wasting time? It’s a lot easier to nudge the person next to you and quickly make the request for help! 

Embracing the power of failure

So, what’s the alternative to constantly chasing an ideal? 

Personally, I have found that it’s these very experiences of failure and disappointment that have allowed me to develop my business and hone my craft. They've taught me humility and empathy, which are invaluable in understanding others' perspectives and connecting on a deeper level.

By shifting our mindset and embracing failure as a natural part of the creative and learning process, we can unlock new avenues for innovation, problem-solving, and personal development. When we're not afraid to try, experiment, and occasionally fall short, we open ourselves up to the possibility of discovering better ways of working and achieving our goals.

Creating a culture of openness and support

In a workplace, to build an authentic environment where imperfection is accepted and even celebrated,  a culture of openness and support within our teams must be prioritised. This means encouraging open communication and celebrating small victories, even amidst the occasional setback. My number one piece of advice to any HR leader or manager would be to protect time in their team’s diaries, create safe spaces for asking questions, and facilitate two-way discussions. Not every employee feels comfortable admitting they are finding something difficult; however, others might have the ability to laugh at themselves, which can build a sense of empathy among their peers.

Leaders need to share too! By being transparent about our own struggles and mistakes, we can set an example for others and help to normalize the reality of the human experience in the workplace. This, in turn, can lead to stronger relationships, increased collaboration, and a more resilient, adaptable workforce. I’ve been discussing loneliness a lot recently (see podcast and blog), and this is a great example of how to make people feel less alone and part of a supportive community that can still do great work while acknowledging their flaws. The constant perception that senior leaders are without fault, or somehow untouchable, breeds unhelpful feelings such as impostor syndrome, isolation, and fear of promotion. In contrast, the ideal scenario is a team where everyone, from intern to senior manager, has each other's backs and learns from one another. 

Being perfectly imperfect!

Being perfect is a false dawn that blinds us to the beauty of imperfection. I know I don’t want to miss out on the richness and diversity that imperfections bring to my life and my experiences. By letting go of the pursuit of perfection and instead focusing on continuous improvement, learning, and growth, we can become more confident, creative, and resilient. 

Take ten minutes out of you day. List three mistakes you've made, big or small.

  1. For each mistake, write down how it ultimately worked out for the best.
  2. Reflect on what you learned from each mistake or how it redirected your life in a positive way.

This exercise helps you see the value in your experiences and understand how challenges can lead to growth and new opportunities.

So, the next time you face a setback, remember that it is not a sign of failure but rather an opportunity to learn, adapt, and ultimately succeed.