The Performance of Professionalism, Part Two - The Myth of Perfectionism
You will remember from The Performance of Professionalism - Part One, that all of us, regardless of race, are navigating the waters of Whiteness. And while White supremacy culture currently manifests in disproportionate outcomes and systemic harm and violence towards People of Color in all aspects of national life - health care, education, policing, housing, immigration, the environment, etc. - we are going to focus this blog series in the context of employment, organizational life, and the norms of "professionalism".
The encouragement to assimilate and adapt into the norms of White supremacy culture promises the illusion of safety while in reality never providing such. And this lack of safety is dangerous for all of us in different ways. As Okun (2021) states "Whatever safety is offered can be and is bought at the expense of authentic relationship with community and self. Whatever safety is offered is ripped away whenever a community or person begins to speak and act with integrity about the racist realities of white supremacy culture" (p. 5). When we cannot bring our full authentic selves to work, we're missing out on a number of opportunities - building community, empathy, compassion, innovation, creativity, etc. And although there's a ton of management literature which speaks to productivity and the economic advantages of being authentic at work, I shouldn't have to sell you on performative measures of success - because let's be real, it's just the right thing to do to honor the full humanity of folks.
My aim for this series is not to vilify White people (I am one) or to provide this information for weaponization. Rather, my goal for this series is to introduce you to the work of Tema Okun and her colleagues, as well as provide some tools to help you begin to recognize the ways in which White supremacy culture is operating in your own life and within your groups and organizations. And the good news is, although White supremacy culture shapes us all as individuals and groups, it does not define us - the fact that we created it (race is a social construct) means we also have the power to dismantle it.
For today's offering, we are going to address the concept of perfectionism within organizations. Unless otherwise cited, all content for this series has been adapted or cited directly from the work of Tema Okun and her colleagues at Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks).
Perfectionism is the conditioned belief that we can be perfect based on a standard or set of rules that we did not create and that we are led to believe will prove our value. Additionally, perfectionism can be used to determine whether others are showing up as perfect or demand that they do so. The question is, who gets to decide who and what is perfect? White supremacy culture uses perfectionism to preserve power and the status quo because as long as we are striving to be perfect according to someone else's rules, we have less time and energy to question those rules and remember what's really important. The perfectionist tendency is always in service of our own power or the current power structure.
Perfectionism shows up in organizations as:
Little or no appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; when appreciation is expressed, it is often or usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway;
More common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate;
Even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them;
Mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes;
Making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong;
The person making the "mistake" or doing something "wrong" rarely participates in defining what doing it "right" looks like or whether a "mistake" actually occurred;
Little time, energy, or money is put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words there is little or no learning from mistakes, and/or little investigation of what is considered a mistake and why;
A tendency to identify what’s wrong; little ability to identify, name, define, and appreciate what’s right;
Often internally felt, in other words the perfectionist fails to appreciate their own good work, more often pointing out their faults or ‘failures,’ focusing on inadequacies and mistakes rather than learning from them; the person works with a harsh and constant inner critic that has internalized the standards set by someone else.
Organizations with perfectionist cultures often struggle with poisonous levels of stress and anxiety, self-blame, difficulty with teamwork, avoidance of feedback and reflection, and/or significant levels of indecision. Perfectionist workplaces are often unable to practice holistic or systems thinking that would allow a greater level of innovation and ability to problem solve. Often rooted in a culture of blame, perfectionist organizations rely on guilt, fear or shame as motivators for work, contributing significantly to employee burnout and stress. If any of this sounds familiar…keep reading!
So what can you do to challenge the impact of perfectionist organizational cultures?
Emphasize a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to ensure that people’s work and efforts are valued;
Develop a 'learning organization,' where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and that those mistakes offer opportunities for growth (i.e. fail forward);
When things go wrong, don’t automatically search for someone to blame or assume there is someone at fault;
Foster an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results. Develop an ability to fail and transform from those failures;
Separate the person from the mistake. When offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism;
Ask people to include specific suggestions for how to do things differently when they offer critical feedback;
Realize that being your own worst critic does not actually improve the work. It often contributes to low morale for everyone and does not help you or the group learn from mistakes;
Develop other sources of motivation in your organization such as a shared vision and a commitment to personal and organizational learning.
I have struggled with some form of perfectionism my entire life. I was (am) a high achieving student and employee, and a lot of my identity and self-worth has been tied to my ability to perform at the highest level of expertise. The problem is, sadly, I don't know everything and those that I work with don't appreciate me holding them to the same standard. I can get quite overwhelmed when I feel like I don't have control over the totality of certain outcomes to meet my ideal of perfection.
I think the pandemic, as devastating as it was for many reasons, was a real turning point for me. I was privileged enough to take some time and space to interrogate how my perfectionist tendencies were manifesting in my personal and professional relationships, and learned to let some things go and give myself some grace (thanks therapy!). But when you start to think about how perfectionism shows up in your life, you notice the ways in which our socialization has shaped us to prioritize perfection. Think about how many of these messages you've received over the course of your life by caregivers, teachers, bosses, the media, etc. Again, it is this culture of White supremacy that preserves the power structure so that we stay so focused on being the best; we miss the learning that comes from making mistakes and pivoting…which is a much more sustainable life skill than striving to be perfect all the time. Imagine what we would be capable of if we weren't afraid to be anything less than perfect?