Let's Reward Growth, Not Perfection

If managers want employees to openly embrace their weaknesses, they need to make them feel supported.

Mentoring employee

Here's a secret: I have weaknesses. Plenty of them, in fact. But they aren't what's holding me back. What is, however, is the belief that I'm not supposed to expose them.

This isn't a new problem in our society, but it's one I believe we need to remedy. It has come to a head for me professionally, and I'm at the stage of my career where I feel I can do something about it. I hope we all do.

Planting the Seeds of Perfection

It starts at birth. It's not enough for a child to develop in their own time. Parents are racing to have their child roll over, crawl, walk and talk, crossing off the milestones on their checklist as quickly as possible. As soon as those children enter school, they're targeted by mass marketing messages of perfection. Perfect attendance awards! Straight-A honor roll lists! Students are judged by their output, not input.

They simply aren't afforded any time to learn to fail. The years we knew as the ones to make mistakes (and boy, did I) are gone. The fear of exposing imperfections is higher than ever. Today, social media adds to this by giving kids a way to display the highlight reels of their lives for all to see. That deep-rooted quest for perfection stays with us forever.

How Striving for Perfection Impacts Careers

When we enter the world of work, the mindset persists. During the interview process, we're coached by the internet not to reveal our true weaknesses but to share strengths veiled as such. "I'm a perfectionist" really means "I'm detail-oriented." When we say, "I have a hard time delegating," we're conveying, "I prefer to do things myself because I can do a better job."

Once employees, we hide our flaws and imperfections in order to give the illusion that we're perfect. We keep quiet during performance reviews for fear of exposing our weaknesses because perfect equals praise — and promotions. If our managers bring up our weaknesses to us, more often than not, it's viewed negatively as a problem that must be fixed, not as an opportunity to help us grow.

If successful, many of us then turn into managers with direct reports of our own. We continue to perpetuate the myth of perfection, keeping our own weaknesses private and praising and rewarding our teams for "perfection."

Now, I believe that accomplishments should be celebrated. But we need to acknowledge that the road to those successes is paved with failure. What's holding us back is the notion that we must keep private the weaknesses we've had to overcome, for fear that it will cost us our reputation. It's time to embrace our weaknesses the way we embrace our strengths.

Breaking the Cycle of Perfection

There has been some positive momentum in challenging the stigma of imperfection. Today's employees are embracing learning and development like never before. According to a LinkedIn study, 94% of employees said they would stay at a company longer if they were offered opportunities to learn and grow.

Many organizations are also moving to a more modern approach to performance management, encouraging personal goal setting, more frequent conversations about roadblocks and an emphasis on gathering more feedback from across the organization to help employees grow.

You can change the terminology from weaknesses to opportunities, and you can create a culture where development is a focus and you can give employees the tools to grow. Yet none of this matters if managers are still perpetuating a culture of perfection.

• Managers must be vulnerable.

Employees look to managers for expectations for behavior, paying close attention to how managers carry themselves. If a leader never shares stories of overcoming challenges in their own career or isn't open about their own insecurities as a professional, employees will follow suit.

It's important for managers to model growth, not perfection. Doing this requires them to expose their vulnerabilities. Not only will employees respect them more for being honest, but it will also open the door to confiding in them about their own struggles.

• Development should be an open-door conversation.

We should strive to create a team culture where weaknesses are normalized, not hidden from sight. If they're only viewed as "problems" and discussed one on one behind closed doors, it will continue to be an uncomfortable conversation.

It takes just one person to speak up to normalize the fact that we all have challenges. Putting it out in the open also makes it possible to match employees with resources or mentors to help them improve.

• Recognize and reward growth.

Yes, we've seen the rise of the "most improved player" award, but it's a far cry from the coveted "best" trophies. Improvement doesn't win college scholarships in high school, and it's never put employees on a fast track to promotion. It should! The strongest people on my own team are those who have fought through doubt, insecurities and, yes, weaknesses.

If managers reward growth instead of perfection, what we might find is that the "perfect" employees actually have (hidden) weaknesses they're forced to address. Everyone wins.

• Create opportunities for mentorship.

If managers want employees to openly embrace their weaknesses, they need to make them feel supported. This means helping them find ways to improve.

Mentors are incredibly helpful at all stages of our careers. There isn't a downside to having someone in your corner to help you think through what you want out of your career and understand how to get there. In fact, the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness Survey found that 91% of employees with mentors are satisfied at work.

Our strengths are what get us hired, but our weaknesses are part of who we are, too. If we don't work in an environment where we can get support and, just as importantly, feel supported, we're not bringing our whole selves to work every day — and that limits our potential. Change starts at the top, and leaders need to reverse the stigma by example.

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