Forget Perfection: Why Supporting People in Being Their Best Selves is the Key to Rehumanizing Our Workplaces and Communities

If we want to have truly human workplaces and communities, we must start by being real. With that, if you’re new to my blogs, let me start with a confession…I’m an ongoing recovering perfectionist. Yes, I said ongoing because I find that perfectionism curse showing up when I least expect it. I don’t wear this as a badge of honor; I own this as a constant reminder to myself that humanity is far more valuable than perfection. However, what I’ve learned in my ongoing recovery and in the consulting and people development work I do is that perfection is not only accepted and considered a good thing, it hinders growth and dehumanizes workplaces, teams, families and communities.

You see, perfection is an unattainable, rigid ideal that really doesn’t exist and cannot be achieved without significant collateral damage along the way. Yet so many of us continue to pursue it to varying degrees. Brené Brown defines perfectionism as the ultimate fear of having the world seeing us as we really are and that we won’t measure up.

“Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield we carry around to avoid being hurt. It’s a way of thinking that says ‘if I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule.’”

We convince ourselves that wearing this armor of being perfect will somehow protect us from being hurt, but it actually prevents us from being seen…seen as our authentic self. In fact, I see this all the time – particularly with Immunity to Change work I do with individuals and teams.

Immunity to Change Immunity to Change (ITC) is a systematic process created by Harvard professors and researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey that helps people identify their psychological immune system; in other words, the unconscious part of our brains that is working really hard at constantly protecting us so that our fears (e.g., rejection, being seen as imperfect, being alone, etc.) don’t become reality. The ITC process continues with identifying our Big Assumption (BA) – assumptions we are making about the world that keep our psychological immune system in place and therefore keeps us “safe.”

Imagine a bunch of people in a family, on a team, or in an organization running around in constant self-protection mode…trying to look good, smart – trying to be perfect. All the while, they’re underlying Big Assumption is telling them things like, “if you let people see the real you, you’ll be rejected and end up alone” or “if you don’t control everything around you, you won’t be valued.” What you have are a bunch of people spending enormous amounts of energy wearing a mask, wearing heavy armor…and it’s exhausting and unproductive.

“Best” Self is NOT Perfectionism!

In our new book, Rehumanizing the Workplace, we define leadership as “maximizing our positive impact on the world by becoming our best, fully authentic selves and supporting those around us to break past barriers and step into their greatness.”

Leadership is ultimately a mindset and a BEHAVIOR, not a title or a role; this means that every one of us has the opportunity to show up as a leader – as the best version of ourselves.

I imagine a world where people can show up in their lives and be fully human – whether at work or at home. To me, “best selves” is when we can show up as our authentic selves, feel safe and connected to others (so we don’t have to wear masks or “armor up”), find fulfillment, align with our purpose and are supported in tending to what our wellbeing needs are.

I regularly include an exercise in my workshops where I ask people to think about the ingredients they need to be their best. For me, some of those ingredients include: getting a good night’s sleep; starting my morning with an awesomely painful, sweaty workout where Shaun T. kicked my butt; being fully present and having connection time with my husband and son; reading and having my brain stimulated to make new connections between things; having an opportunity to make a difference in others; eating nourishing food; and laughing. It’s amazing how many people haven’t spent time defining what they need to be their best, let alone who their best self is.

I am very intentional about language and what it means to be our “best” selves. That said, some people interpret “best” as some unattainable standard of perfection. So let me clarify. “Best Self” is NOT:

  • Striving for perfection
  • Minimizing our value as we currently are (i.e., our authentic, flawed selves)

Brené Brown is clear to distinguish perfectionism from striving for excellence and striving to be our best:

  • Healthy striving is self/internally focused on being the best we can be.
  • Perfectionism is other-focused and driven by “what will people think?”

In fact, she states that “when perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun – and fear is the annoying backseat driver.” This distinction is so important. We can take pride in being the best version of ourselves and work to better ourselves; but when perfectionism enters the arena, no one wins.

In the leadership and culture transformation work I do, I frequently leverage the Judgment Index (JI) assessment – which helps people understand how their thinking patterns (about themselves and their work/world) show up in the judgments and choices they make. One of the JI indicators reflects self-criticism and perfectionism. I’ve seen this incredible pattern where the more career success people have, the higher their self-criticism/perfectionism can be…and you see this translate into numerous team culture and communication issues; their perfectionism starts to turn into an overall intolerance for error, leading to impatience and frustration with others.

“Best” Self = Being Our AUTHENTIC Self

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” ~Brené Brown

For most people, showing up as our authentic self is downright scary. It takes tremendous courage to be vulnerable to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome.

Imagine a team, family or workplace where people can be their best selves – their authentic selves. Imagine that people can show up tending to the ingredients they need to be their best and seek to grow and improve yet have a safe space to be imperfect and screw up – where they can even fall apart and have a genuine support network to help them along the way. It’s not a fairytale; such places exist.

Being Our Authentic Selves…Permission to Screw Up

When I read Kristen Hadeed’s book, Permission to Screw Up, I found myself laughing and cringing as I related to her very personal account of her imperfect, yet successful journey in leadership. She originally wrote the book not as her authentic self. She describes her wake-up call:

“My speeches were about the lessons I learned, not how I learned them. My blog posts were full of advice for young entrepreneurs but said nothing about what it took for me to figure that stuff out. Everything out of my mouth was about what my company had done well…I shared the neat, clean, uncomplicated, polished part. The side I thought everyone wanted to hear. The only side I wanted to talk about.”

She wouldn’t have had the same success with her book had she kept down that path; she even described her story as empty. Our bumps and bruises are what makes us human; they’re what helps us put down our armor, be vulnerable and connect with others. She says, “When we bring our humanity to work, so do our people.”

I relate to Kristen because I learned through years of self-work (including my own Immunity to Change work) that various versions of my Big Assumptions (BA) are rooted in the notion that I have to be perfect and prove myself to be accepted, valued and loved. And my quest for perfection (me armoring up to avoid being hurt) led to some major screw-ups.

  • For example, years ago when I was just starting to have clients who trusted me to help them with leadership development work (versus employee wellbeing work), I was terrified they’d realize they made a mistake. I was so focused on “doing it right” (whatever that means) that I inadvertently excluded Emily, this amazing consultant who was on my team. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t intentional; I found out through others how hurt and upset she was. I had a lot of repair work to do so she trusted and respected me as a leader again.
    I’ve had countless times as a leader where I hesitated, beat around the bush or completely avoided giving feedback that wasn’t positive; my BA took charge and fear of not being liked prevailed. (where was Kim Scott’s Radical Candor back then?)
  • I played politics and schmoozed with wellness industry leaders so I could have a chance to have my voice heard at national conferences. How is that a screw-up? I stayed too long…ignoring their blatant disregard for science and progress and message they provide the industry; ignoring their inhumane attacks on people I care about while they hypocritically kissed my butt (even though we challenge the same things about what’s broken in worksite wellness). I chose exposure over my own integrity.
  • I was so focused on proving myself in everything…being the best fitness instructor, life and business coach, speaker, consultant, etc. that I ignored the one person who matters most – my husband. We ended up separating for a while in 2005. After all, who wants to put up with being second fiddle to a wife who is seeking love and approval everywhere else?
    On countless occasions I’ve literally gotten sick from taking on too much…trying to do it all and trying to be Wonder Woman.
  • I’ll be good for a while, but on numerous occasions, my precious son has said to me, “Mommy, can you please NOT work this weekend so we can do fun stuff?” OUCH! What the hell kind of example am I setting? (remember, I did say ongoing recovery)

I could go on for several books. The point being that my ongoing recovery from perfectionism is fueled by knowing my triggers, Big Assumptions and narrative – so when they rear their ugly heads and signal me to armor up, I hopefully have the opportunity to pause and instead choose to embrace who I am, learn and work to grow and improve. And I have many opportunities to remind me that I’m only human!

Take Home Message

Being our best and authentic self takes intentionality; it doesn’t happen by accident. So, given that we are all human, our journey is about constantly working to close the gaps between our current reality and who we are at our best. Could it really be that “simple”? If we work to make it safe and equip people with the support and tools to be their authentic selves and to close the gaps to living our individual and collective purpose, can we have an entirely more profound – more human – experience at work and at home? I believe we can; and I’m already seeing it happen.

I’d love to hear your thoughts…

  • What do you need to be your best self?
  • What benefits do you notice when you show up authentically?

Never dull your sparkle!

~Rosie

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