The Paradox Of Perfection

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“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career; I’ve lost almost 300 games; 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot— and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

Ask practically any hiring manager if they’d hire someone who never considers alternatives, who refuses to take decisive action, who has never challenged themselves, and the answer will be, “No.”

The odd thing is, however, that those same managers are hiring exactly those people they said they’d never hire. Of course, they say they’re hiring people with strong track records, who don’t have a history of failure, who have never been responsible for something going wrong; the people, in short, with the perfect job histories.

But what they don’t do is take the time to understand just why that person looks so perfect. After all, isn’t it always better to hire someone who has never failed than to hire someone whose background includes unsuccessful projects?

Imagine if Michael Jordan’s coach had said, back when he first missed a game winning shot, “Hey Mikey, you missed that shot! You’re done.”

Far too often, the people who look so perfect are only perfect because they’ve never allowed themselves to attempt anything that would damage their image of perfection. They carefully choose their projects to make sure they’ll be successful, and they never challenge themselves or expose themselves to risk. Unfortunately, when something does go wrong, they also have no ability to cope.

Twelve years ago, I worked with someone who was telling me how he failed his black belt test in the martial art he studied. “It was the first test I’d ever failed,” he told me. “It was devastating.”

“How long ago did that happen?” I asked him.

“Two years.”

“So I assume you passed the second time.”

“What second time?” he asked.

After two years, his failure was still so overwhelming that he hadn’t gotten back on that metaphorical horse. As an engineer, he was not easy to work with because he had to be right all the time.

I was once called in to work with a manager who had a stellar track record, until something went wrong. He couldn’t cope. He kept telling me, “I’m not the sort of manager who allows something like that to happen.”

The resulting disconnect between his (mis)perception of himself and reality was overwhelming. The fellow was so stressed out that he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat and couldn’t think straight. The fact that he had never failed meant that he had no resilience. The mere possibility of failure was enough to send him into panic and make the odds of failure more likely. Yes, we did turn things around, and he’s a much more capable manager now than he ever was before.

When you want someone to embark on a risky project or take bold, decisive action, don’t look to the person with the perfect record who has never failed. If they haven’t taken risks or been bold before, why would they change just for you? Clearly what they’ve been doing worked for them—it got them praise, promotions and financial rewards.

Paradoxically, perhaps that person with the checkered past is exactly who you’re looking for. The person who misses that game-winning shot one day, improves their skills, and nails it the next time is the real winner. Success is about trying over and over and accepting the bobbles along the way. Unfortunately, the tendency on the part of many people is to view a mistake as total failure. This deprives them, and their managers, of the chance to improve and seek greater challenges.

Who would you rather trust when the stakes are high? The person with the perfect record, or the one who is the equivalent of Michael Jordan?

Filed Under: HR & Employees

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About the Author: Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development, published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at (978) 298-5189 or steve@7stepsahead.com.

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  1. Edgar says:

    Perfect, I couldn’t agree more. I lost my job recently because I took a risk. As a bank manager, I lost of 1/3 of my staff to promotions, the competition and FMLA (all good things of course). So I focused more on the client impact and deferred the sales to my personal banker. The result was less sales than previous. Gradually the new hires got up to speed and the sales did too, but too late for me. My new boss determined I had focused on the wrong things (the clients) and made an example of me by terminating me for sales performance. I am positive about finding a new, better job because I know I did the right thing for the most important persons (the client). Wish me luck.

    • Stephen Balzac says:

      Hi Edgar,

      Sadly, I see this happening far too often. It’s an extremely foolish and short-sighted approach to management and employee performance.

      Good luck moving forward.

      -Steve

  2. Patrick Walsh says:

    Very well explained! I have seen this dynamic slowly evolve over the past decade. I think much of it has to do with the over development of performance metrics relative to real world intangibles such as customer satisfaction. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on the metrics is amplified by a “CYA” mentality in which each manager down the line is judged to a greater and greater degree by metrics. Functions such as performance appraisals and hiring interviews have become so depersonalized, that face to face meetings are almost moot. Evaluation metrics have contributed a great deal to efficiency, but their judicious use and culture are equally important. At the end of the day, we are all failures from time to time. Failure is good.. it teaches, motivates, and strengthens our resolve.

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