Risk Versus Perfection

Risk Versus Perfection

There seems to be a pretty significant tension in many organizations between encouraging people to take risks and requiring that everyone’s work is always perfect. Some managers exhort their people to “think outside the box,” “take risks,” and “be creative.” Yet at the same time, they penalize people fairly harshly for imperfection. I have seen people who did as they were asked in terms of taking risks, but when things didn’t go as planned, the organization took projects away from them, passed them over for promotions, gave them smaller raises, and publicly criticized them.

According to my (very old) Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “risk” is defined as “1: To expose to hazard or danger; 2: to incur the risk or danger of ___.” (You fill in the blank.) In other words, you cannot take a risk without, surprise, surprise … risking something.

I was thinking about this tension the other day while watching a cross country meet. At the first mile marker, a girl ran by who was clearly in pain and having a tough time. She ended up coming in last, literally limping across the finish line in tears. As she crossed the finish line, a friend of mine remarked that she really admired this girl’s courage and tenacity. She said that she herself was such a perfectionist that she would have quit after the first mile, when she realized that she was injured and was going to run a very slow race.

My friend’s comment highlighted how much we stand to lose, on both a personal and an organizational level, by insisting on perfection. On the personal level, we lose the thrill and confidence that comes with accomplishing something that we did not think that we could do. While the cross country runner would obviously have preferred to run a faster race, she was clearly proud of herself for finishing, as were her teammates. I suspect that her knowledge that she can persist and overcome difficulties will serve her in good stead in her next race.

On the organizational level, organizations that are unwilling to try new things, fail, and keep trying until they get it right, are likely to become less competitive and successful. In addition, managers who tell people to take risks while penalizing their subsequent predictable failures are sending mixed messages, failing to show strong leadership, undermining morale, and asking for the impossible. If you want your team to grow and to try new things, then you have to be prepared for the fact that, on occasion, not everything is going to go perfectly. You cannot have it both ways.

That being said, there are obviously areas in which mistakes are not okay. Building a large suspension bridge in a potentially risky new way in order to “be creative” springs to mind. But even for people in careers or positions that require perfection in the final product, organizations can still encourage creativity and risk taking in different ways.

So, if you are a manager, how do you encourage your people to take the right kinds of risks? Start by paying attention to whether your words and actions are in alignment. If you are simultaneously encouraging people to take risks and penalizing them for less than perfect outcomes, then you need to change one of those two things before you can move forward. Next, be clear in your own mind where mistakes are okay (e.g., testing a model of a new suspension bridge), and where they are not (e.g., building a real bridge), and then clearly communicate that to your team. Finally, and this is one of the most obvious, yet often overlooked ways, encourage open and honest communication between all members of your team. This means that you encourage junior people to disagree with senior people, and you encourage senior people to listen to and take seriously the thoughts of junior people.



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