A Publication of WTVP

Do you have a perfectionist in your management team? If so, I feel sorry for you. One of the worst managers, especially from the standpoint of ethics in business practices, is a perfectionist. Such a person wreaks havoc on the decision-making process-not only in trying to make ethically sound choices, but also in the aftermath of a decision when outcomes, however bad or good, are revisited. Whether others on the team want to or not.

Who exactly is a perfectionist, and why is such a person bad news when it comes to determining ethical practices? If you're a perfectionist, you already are finding errors in anything and everything I've been writing-from grammar to usage, from word choice to argument construction. You also are thinking immediately, "I could do this better." When you're asked to come up with your improvements, you can't and won't. Why not? Because as you strive to make corrections and take another approach, you won't hand anything over until you're sure it's right-and what you develop never is right enough for you.

So now we can see three major problems with the perfectionist in the management team. First, he or she isn't a team player and can't work towards a consensus on matters large and small. The perfectionist sees matters in black and white-even complicated matters-and his or her way is the "rightest" way or maybe the only right way.

A perfectionist also is a procrastinator because he or she is never satisfied with a finished product-especially his or her own. So even when the person insists there's a better way, he or she can't demonstrate it. Finally, the perfectionist is a great buck-passer, even if the matter really is in his or her realm of responsibility, because there wasn't enough of whatever in place to be able to make a decision (or so the excuse goes).

Don't get me wrong; we need perfectionists in certain kinds of work. If there's a tangible outcome, as in many manufacturing and medical processes, a perfectionist has an important role monitoring and measuring quality, efficiency, and distribution. There are some products and processes where there can be no tolerance for error and variation. That's not the same when working for people or when making decisions that involve some abstractions or incomplete information.

Unfortunately for perfectionists, that's where most ethical decisions have to take place. Sometimes people are promoted beyond their ability to deal with the abstract, and they create discord and serious morale problems because they want certainty and clarity when that may not be possible.
When it comes to ethical matters, businesses and organizations deal with values, strategies, and choices. Perfectionists demand choices between what they view as right or wrong-but the problem is that in all but the most extreme cases, there is "righter" and "wronger." They insist a company and its leaders should choose between good and bad-but the problem is that, again, except for the simplest choices, there's only better or worse. In the most challenging situations, there may be a choice between worse and "worser" because business conditions may offer only a series of difficult and costly choices.

As many of you know, I'm not only a consultant, but I'm a minister also. People assume ministers deal with moral absolutes. That's true. I've found through the years that there are very few moral absolutes-and even then, as people try to identify them, there's no absolute certainty they'll have the "right" answer. As one who's dealt with companies and organizations that have faced ethical dilemmas or which have been filled with conflict, my professional and educational preparation have helped me see there rarely is one right way to make a decision.

Perhaps you're the type of person who demonstrates perfectionist tendencies. One of the greatest challenges is to stop the impulse to assume you have the right or the only answer-just a perspective about the situation that may or may not shed light or lead to a good outcome. Your perspective needs to be heard, but it may be one good way among several. If you're a perfectionist and in charge of an enterprise, you absolutely must develop a team around you to challenge you, especially in your blind spots.

Ethical choices need to be viewed from several perspectives. Decisions ultimately will have some fallout and probably some fallback as well. Whether you're a perfectionist or have one on your management team, do everything you can to cultivate a variety of perspectives before making an ethical decision. You may not have an outcome free of error, but you'll have an outcome with less opportunity to make a truly bad decision. IBI