Perfection's Dark Shadow

Sep 20, 2019

Twenty years ago when I still worked in the public service, I managed a small team of people who wrote guides to help people follow strategic procurement policies. Things started off well enough. The analysts would bring their products to me, excited to be contributing to our mission. I would take them, read them, then return them completely covered with red edits.

They would take them back and get to work, determined to please me, returning them quickly with all edits completed. I would read them, start editing, then take them home so I could rework them the way I wanted. I'd triumphantly hand them back the next day, sure that I was inspiring them with a good model for the kind of quality I wanted our shop to produce.

They were absolutely not inspired.

You see, I was teaching them that I was the kind of person who was impossible to please, always micromanaged, didn't mentor them, and would eventually grab the work away from them and do it myself. Predictably, they became disillusioned and started searching for positions elsewhere. Worse, my behaviour left them disempowered and disengaged. Their performance plummeted. My frustration level rose.

Here's where things took an even more damaging turn. I began to criticize THEM.

"What's wrong with them?" I wondered. "Why can they never give me a piece of work that is ready to go? How did I end up with such poor performers?" With every interaction, even if I didn't say those words, I was broadcasting my judgement about them loud and clear. 

And the downward spiral continued. I wish I knew then what I know now, but I hadn't learned it yet. 

CRITICISM IS THE DARK SHADOW OF PERFECTION AND IT IS DEEPLY DAMAGING

I've watched people who work together destroy their relationships with criticism. A steady diet of character assassination impacts their mental health, their family life, their performance and satisfaction at work and the efficacy of the organizational mission. Smart committed people with good intentions create more and more dysfunction together that has them wasting their time and energy in useless spirals like the one I created back then. It is utterly heartbreaking to witness.

The expectation that people should be perfect, should have always been perfect and should never make mistakes is one part of the foundation of this toxic pattern of criticism, separation and polarization and it's playing out all levels: at homes, in schools, in every kind of workplace, nationally and on a global scale to frightening effect. Take a look at the news headlines any day of the week and you'll see countless examples of the wars we wage on each other because of this.

THE HIGHEST LEVERAGE MOVE YOU CAN MAKE RIGHT NOW

If you're ready and willing to change the pattern. Try this: Examine your own tendency to criticize.

As you look around you and see something or someone you disagree with, pause, close down your social media and ask yourself, "How am I just like that thing or person I am judging?"

Even if the initial answer is an indignant, "I'm NOT! I'd NEVER do that!" ask again. Is there even a tiny part of you that can be like that? 

When you find that tiny part of yourself, learn more about it. It might be bigger than you think.

I criticized my staff because they couldn't do it perfectly the first time out. Well, since then I've learned that I can despise the part of me that can't perform flawlessly (and extraordinarily) right away. After I left the public service and began to learn the craft of human development I shed many hot tears, beating myself mercilessly for not knowing enough, doing enough or being enough. As I enter my sixteenth year as a leadership consultant and executive coach, I can still do that, although thankfully, I'm a bit faster at seeing it, stopping it and forgiving myself. 

COMPASSION 2.0: AN EFFECTIVE AND ALTERNATIVE STRATEGY

Beyond the false harmony that we often mistake for empathy lies what I have been calling Compassion 2.0. This is a fierce practice that begins with a commitment to examining ourselves, then letting that exploration inform how we will move forward with the other person.

I will soon share more about this as it encompasses other important elements that we all can learn.

For now, for those who are courageous and willing, please try this: 

Ask yourself, "How am I just like that which I criticize?" 

This would be a great start. And, it could do a world of good.

 

 

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