How can we encourage employee excellence without pressuring perfectionism?

Failure. A charged and loaded term and idea — and one our culture is obsessed with. Seeing where we went wrong and laughing at defeat is far more clickbait and entertaining than celebrating the other side of the coin: success.

And yet we’re also obsessed with success, through the constant threat of embarrassment via failure. One of the key ingredients to achieving success, we’re constantly told, is through excellence — standing out from among our peers, paying closer attention to detail than anyone else, going the extra mile to earn our stripes.

This drives us towards perfectionism even when we may not be naturally predisposed to it, and runs the risk of making machines out of people who might have a more generalist approach to work or talent in other areas, and whose attributes are compromised and denigrated by this culture of exceptionalism.

The positive side of encouraging excellence is that it pushes employees towards more growth and evolution: a stimulating and a rewarding challenge. But off balance, it risks increasing an employee’s stress levels and failing to recognize their true potential. The problem with exacerbating perfectionism is that we lose the big picture and fail to optimise our human resources — and in doing so, we negatively affect employee wellbeing.

In a recent article published in The Economist, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen explained how overcrowded labour markets and unaffordable housing are driving young people to ever greater lengths to secure a competitive advantage — a trend that has only been accentuated by the pandemic. But perfectionism has plagued the workplace for much longer than this would suggest: it’s a telling sign of the legacy of toxic work culture that many corporations fostered during the nineties.

The million-dollar question is: how can we encourage employee excellence without pressuring perfectionism, and change workplace culture to one of inclusion and cooperation, where excellence and empathy coexist?

When I founded and led Edifecs for what would turn out to be nearly three decades, I was committed to perfectionism because the stakes — democratizing access to healthcare through technology — were so high. And sure enough, before I had even turned forty-five, I started suffering symptoms of burnout. So dedicated was I to my job, so perfectionistic about the company which I had created and cherished, and so passionate about its mission, that I lost myself along the way. My body could not keep up with the drive I had in my head.

Burnout often is accompanied by lasting physical and mental damage, something that has become commonplace in our society. My own experience made me acutely aware of the urgency required in taking action to change how we work.

I’m just as passionate now as I was then, founding RoundGlass with the hope not just to democratize healthcare access for Americans, but to democratize wellbeing solutions for the entire world. But this time, no burnout: because through Wholistic Wellbeing, I’ve learned to reframe excellence as the outcome of workplace education rather than the consequence of perfectionism.

The corporate environment does not have to be the brutal atmosphere depicted by burnt out employees or films about Wall Street. It can — and should — be a place of lifelong learning. How do we encourage employee excellence without pressuring perfectionism? By teaching employees how to excel, rather than pitting them against one another with the promise of promotion.

To be sure, excellence is not something that can be taught in training workshops, as when bright young lawyers join a firm or new IT staff receive their onboarding. It’s something that has to be nurtured at every level of the corporate ladder — not only by the people above but also by the people below, who teach us about demographic shifts, trends in the modern market, and how to relate to an ever-changing audience.

Senior managers need to build a culture of trust, where they allow employees to take on new challenges and responsibilities with the degree of risk this inevitably implies. Although micromanagement ensures no mistakes are made in the short term, it is counterproductive in the long term as it produces employees who are over-reliant rather than proactive. Although thinking of the workplace as an educational setting has its uses, it’s also important that managers don’t mistake their role for that of a schoolteacher.

Ultimately, it is promoting a culture of Wholistic Wellbeing that will really facilitate this shift. Creating an environment that values collective excellence and frames personal wellbeing as part of a company’s wider success can only enhance and boost morale and dedication. People respond to inspiration, so create a healthy, functional and dynamic workplace that inspires people to enrich their own lives through corporate excellence.