Perfectionism in Leadership Discourse Part 2

Perfectionism in Leadership Discourse Part 2

Read Part 1 HERE

In this two Part series of articles we are looking at absolutist leadership language and the likelihood that only a “perfect organisation”, could actually deliver perfection. We then look and what that means in terms of the meaning and impact of the message, used by leaders, when they establish absolutist goals such as zero harm.

In Part 1 (see here) we established that we cannot have a Zero Incident workplace even if we have perfect people.

In Part 2 will look in turn at the other four components of the Perfect Organisation (based on the Nertney Wheel): “Totally Reliable and Useable Systems”; “Totally Reliable Equipment”; the “Perfect Work Environment” and “Zero Harm Production”.

Let’s first look at the Totally Reliable and Useable Systems component. Arguably a Perfect Organisation would be able to significantly reduce organisational bureaucracy and either eliminate or reduce the number of systems in place needed to regulate their operations and people.

If we did have the perfect organisation with perfect people we could assume we would have Zero Incidents. The question then needs to be raised; why would we need “Safety Systems”? If there was an incident in a workplace, involving an injury or illness to a perfect person, we would have to assume that it was the system and not the person which was the cause of the person to suffer the injury or illness; after all, by definition a perfect person couldn’t make a mistake and create an incident.

That being the case further questions should then be asked: If it is the system which caused the injury, does it mean that by increasing the number of systems we are actually making the workplace less safe? Why would we then not remove the systems so as to make the workplace safer? If it was not the safety system which caused the injury, then we have to conclude that the person was not perfect. If people are not perfect, does it not follow that they will eventually have incidents which means that we cannot have a perfect workplace or Zero Harm?

Hopkins (2005, p. 4) cites a study by Eisner and Leger looking at safety management in a number of South African mines. They examined mines which used the 5 Star International Safety Rating System (ISRS) to establish safety management systems and measure the performance of those safety management systems. The study correlated the achieved ratings of the mines with their respective fatality and reportable injury rates. The conclusion drawn was that the 5 Star companies, i.e. those which had achieved perfect scores of 5 Stars, were no better at managing safety than those which had inferior ratings.

And so it would seem that Zero Incidents is actually not achievable with or without perfect people or with or without safety systems in place.

Senge (2006, p. 129) said ‘Organisations learn only through individuals who learn’ and ‘Over the long run, superior performance depends on superior learning’ (Senge 1996, p. 288). If Ellis is correct in that perfectionists ‘resist short term change’ (2002, pp. 227-228) it follows that organisations populated with Perfect People would be slow to learn, would fail to improve their processes and innovate. Lee, et al, (2011, p. 413) found:

… that those high in perfectionism took longer to complete tasks, experienced more checking and safety behaviour whilst carrying out tasks, and had greater trouble actually completing tasks compared to those low in perfectionism.

From this we can conclude that the perfect organisation would have poor productivity, have added complexity related to decision making and solving problems, all of which would lead to increasing the likelihood of approaching and meeting a breaking point and a heightened risk of failure.

In order for an organisation to improve, it must learn and it must understand that learning and innovation go hand in hand, and that ‘…the process of innovation is a process of failure’ (Senge 1999 p.65). The process of innovation is linked to the process of experimentation. Peters and Waterman (1996, p. 39) claim that ‘if we experiment successfully, by definition, we will make many mistakes’. However, given that a Zero Harm organisation cannot allow failures, it is difficult to see how that organisation would be able to innovate, learn and improve, which would inevitably lead to it experiencing increased difficulty competing in its marketplace. Kim (cited in Robbins et al. 1998, p. 545) claims that learning is ‘a fundamental requirement’ for the sustained existence of organisations. Revans (cited in Robbins et al. 1998, p. 545) postulates that if an organisation does not learn at the same or greater rate than the environment that sustains it, it will lose touch with that environment and it will die.

Given that our Perfect Organisation, populated by perfectionists, would be slow to learn and innovate, eventually organisational performance would fall behind that which was “acceptable”; pressure to compete in the market place would increase, pressure on employees to perform would increase, leading to an increased risk of mistakes, incidents, productivity losses and potentially the failure of the organisation – Not Zero.

Now let us examine the third component: Totally Reliable Equipment. The up-side of having “totally reliable” equipment would be that inspection and maintenance costs would be limited to the fallibility of the material used to produce the equipment. From an engineering sense, wear rates, fatigue rates and the lead time to planned failure, would be known; very accurate replacement and overhaul schedules could be established. Unscheduled breakdowns and unscheduled production interruptions would be eliminated. Quality variances, related to wear rates, could be eliminated by designing in automatic wear rate adjustments between overhauls where appropriate.

However, we cannot divorce ourselves from the fact that equipment (vehicles, plant, machines, tools etc.) is designed, manufactured and used by people. To have “totally reliable” equipment the design and manufacturing processes would have to be conducted by perfect people, presumably from other perfectionist organisations, with the resultant personality difficulties mentioned earlier.

Reason (cited in Hopkins 2008, p. 15) talks about ‘latent conditions’ related to poor design, gaps in supervision, undetected manufacturing defects etc., which become in-built in designs, systems and procedures because of the decisions made by legislators, designers, manufacturers and managers. These latent conditions lie-in-wait for local circumstances to occur and eventually lead to situations where failures or errors occur. In ‘Human Factors in Design’ (1976, p. I-1 – I-2) Nertney advises that successful design must take into account the natural variability of the physical specifications of the people who operate and work with the equipment. With regard to the variability of human behaviour he further cautions that:

The situation is even worse with regard to human behavior (sic) in that there is a very large variability from person to person and from time to time for a given individual. (Nertney, 1976, pp. I-1 – I-2)

From this we can infer that if we are not able to employ perfect, ‘cloned’ people with identical physical and mental specifications in the respective designing, manufacturing and operating processes, there will be natural variances either designed into, or manufactured into, the equipment by the people involved in those processes; or if not, at least in the way the equipment is used or maintained. If this is the case, logic would dictate that, as a result of this inbuilt variance and latent conditions, it must be only a matter of time before a mistake is made, equipment will fail and a loss is incurred – again not Zero Harm.

The fourth component of the Perfect Organisation’s model, the Perfect Environment, relates to the natural and built environment within which the organisation exists and the people work. The perfect environment would mean that the work environment was established such that either nothing changes or where people, equipment and the appropriate procedures adapt or are adapted seamlessly to account for changes.

While this scenario would be Utopia, we have already seen that if people are involved in designing and or building the “built environment” the natural variances of those involved would also build in latent conditions, which would ultimately make the environment unstable and failures would occur.

Added to this is the total uncontrollability of the natural environment and the natural change of seasons. Unplanned events naturally occur and freak storms, floods, bush fires etc., will develop. Given the difficulties that perfectionists have with change (Ellis 2002, pp. 227-228) it is not likely that all workers would respond quickly enough to manage this variability, thus increasing the likelihood that incidents will occur. Some of those incidents will not be controlled and harm of some type will result.

The fifth component of the Perfect Organisation’s model and the focus of the other four components is Zero Harm Production. The final area left to address is related to zero product or service defects; essentially quality management. From a quality perspective all failures to meet specifications, and all rejections and returns from customers is waste.

The production of any goods and the delivery of many services requires the gathering and consumption of resources, commencing at the primary industry level, with the fundamental ingredients from the earth; its natural resources. It could be argued that the use of any natural resource, which is taken from the natural environment, causes harm to the environment.

A search of extremist environmental group web sites graphically demonstrates this discourse (Scribol, 2014). Indeed the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT, 2014) claims that the very existence of humans on Earth harms the planet. They advocate the gradual extermination of all human life to eliminate that harm. Certainly any waste of natural resources, would be considered by many to be unnecessary harm to the environment.

The Perfect Organisation could accept nothing except zero waste and zero defects, in fact TOTAL quality control. Quality experts argue that aiming at absolute quality control may not be in the best interest of an organisation. They claim that, when costs related to prevention of faults, i.e. inspection, design review and testing, increase the cost of quality to the point that economic returns become negative, it is not practical to insist on zero defects (Kerzner 1998, p. 1061). Indeed at this stage Juran insists on ‘…easing tolerances, reducing inspection controls, and rooting out perfectionists’ (cited in Périgord 1990, p. 89. (emphasis added)). Here, unless the organisation was willing to accept defects, it would be plotting its own demise by insisting on zero defects.

It would appear that none of the accepted areas: Zero Harm Production, Perfect People, Totally Reliable Equipment, Totally Reliable and Useable Systems, and a Perfect Work Environment, which would make up the operations of a Perfect Organisation, have the ability to exist, let alone the capacity to sustain perfectionism.

Further we can see that even if a Perfect Organisation was able to suddenly come into existence, because of the very nature of its belief in and practice of perfectionism, it would not be sustainable; it would die.

The calculated absurdity of the logic presented in this paper reflects the absurdity of the notion of Zero Harm, where it appears that even perfectionism cannot deliver Zero Harm.

When leaders espouse a language of absolutism, their discourse primes an outcome of failure. When leaders espouse a language of absolutism, they establish what Moskowitz and Grant term an ‘avoidance goal,’ which, they explain, is negative in its priming and not inspirational in its application (Moskowitz & Grant, 2009). Where a goal, even one “intended” to be inspirational, cannot be met, those who hear the words, instinctively know that failure is inevitable.

Athletic coaches do not set unachievable goals for their charges; they understand that motivation from achievement is more powerful than constant demonstration of failure from un-achievement.

When leaders set realistic and achievable goals and talk in terms that preclude absolutes they set a scene for increased credibility and buy-in from their followers.

When perfectionism is the language of leadership, failure is the only possible outcome.

Author: Max Geyer





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Max Geyer
Max is currently completing a Graduate Certificate in the Social Psychology of Risk; has a Graduate Certificate of Management (HR Management); Diplomas of Business – Auditing (OH&S, Environment & Quality); a Certificate in Coaching Skills; a Certificate in Emotional Intelligence Assessment & Coaching; a Certificate IV in Workplace Training & Assessment and a Certificate in Return to Work Coordination. With over 35 years experience at operational and management levels in industry, including the Pastoral Industry, General Industry, Mining Industry and Consulting; Max delights in bringing that experience and knowledge to his interactions with Viamax clients in order to help make a positive difference to their lives.

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