Perfectionism is destructive to the PR industry

Perfectionism is often cited as PR professionals' biggest strength. But it's the enemy of productive, healthy and sustainable success, explains Fuel Communications' Melody Chew. And PR leaders must take steps to reverse, and stamp out, this culture of perfectionism.

Tell people in a social setting that you work in PR and, more often than not, they’ll conjure a mental image of Samantha Jones in Sex and the City. Immediately, you become someone who lives and breathes confidence, someone who can hold their own in a room full of senior business executives, tackle hard-hitting journalists head on, connect with people from all walks of life, and, of course, persuade the most sceptical.

And it’s true. For the most part, PR professionals are absolute guns at doing all of this. But what’s also true is that we tend to put an unreasonable amount of pressure on ourselves and are far too afraid to expose our vulnerabilities.

The most common personality trait of a PR (or flaw, depending on your point of view) is perfectionism. Our industry is full of anxious, over-achieving personalities. With this comes an insidious set of unspoken voices in our heads that question everything we do and make us constantly mindful of how our thoughts, words and actions will be perceived by others.

I can see why this trait is so prevalent in our industry. Within PR, there are many people who have gone through life doing their very best, pushing themselves to their limits, wanting to deliver the best possible outcomes. I’ve worked closely with ex school captains, school duxes, scholarship recipients, published authors, ex-Oxford mathematicians, marathon runners, professional yogis and accomplished athletes.

We have grown up being praised for our achievements and performance, which has conditioned us to seek approval from those around us. This conditioning has taught us to be people focussed; we get deep satisfaction from building meaningful human connections.

The trade off is that our perfectionist natures are truly self-destructive. At its heart, perfectionism is driven by a need to avoid shame, judgement and blame. This constant obsession with perception means that, by nature, perfectionists deeply care about delivering on the needs of the people they build relationships with. The worst part for PRs is that so much of our job is about building, managing and delivering on a complex web of relationships with media, clients, stakeholders, teams, and managers.

But we have to get better at helping our people when perfectionism takes over, and replace it with healthy goal setting.

Help people understand that perfectionism isn’t a virtue

So many young people take pride in their perfectionism. I’ve sat in many job interviews where candidates have cited perfectionism as one of their key strengths. We need to make it clear that we don’t require ‘perfect’. In fact, there is no such thing. Instead, we require curiosity, bravery, and the ability to be vulnerable, make mistakes, and learn from them.

Encourage teams to recognise perfectionism and call it out

We must regularly talk about perfectionism so that our people understand what it is, when it is taking hold, and why it is destructive. Perfectionism can be found in the person who is afraid to tell their superior when they have made a mistake, in the consultant who feels combative when clients ask for a different approach, in the person afraid to speak up in a boardroom meeting, and perhaps most commonly among our young PRs, in the people who stay back late at work every night trying to get through every single thing on their to do list, even if it’s not all urgent.

We need to tackle all of this behaviour head on, calling it out and ensuring people know it’s okay to not get it right, to not complete everything perfectly every single time. It is, in fact, okay to have an opinion, a voice, and challenge the status quo.

Examine the pervasiveness of the culture of perfectionism

What kind of pressure are we, as leaders, putting on our teams? Why do they not feel comfortable to take risks, expose their flaws and truly learn from stepping outside of their comfort zone? Have we ourselves forgotten one of the most important things about going to work every day – that it’s not what you do, but who you work with?

We need to ask ourselves these questions to know the answers, and work to correct them.

Make space for failure

We must actively demonstrate our own shortcomings and vulnerabilities. At a recent dinner with some industry veterans that I have grown up with, we laughed so hard about some of the worst mistakes we’ve ever made. For every mistake that was made, there was an interesting story around how each individual had grown as a professional as a result of that mistake.

Talking about our own mistakes and demonstrating our own vulnerabilities is a great way of leading by example and creating a safe environment where self compassion and empathy can flourish.

Understand that there’s no single road to career progression

So often I’ve heard of businesses running performance reviews using a templated career plan that assumes that every single employee has an understanding of they want to do with their career. Many people don’t – especially younger people, who will probably change career paths multiple times.

The pressure to set goals that ladder-up to a longer term career plan can, at times, be counterproductive. Rather than trying to build an understanding of where individuals want to take their career in the future, it might be better to focus on what really motivates each individual and help them to set healthy goals that focus on what matters to them in the present.

Ensure there is me time

Poor mental health in the marketing industry has become a hot topic and it is definitely apparent in PR. No-one can realistically grow and develop unless they are given the space and tools to manage their own mental health.

In our fast-paced environment, we must look at how we can deliver work/life balance by creating flexibility in our approaches to work, encouraging exercise, healthy eating and mindfulness, and ensuring there is ample time for personal relationships.

Because, ultimately, if we want to foster a generation of happy, successful and productive PRs, we must watch out for, talk about, and stamp out perfectionism.

Melody Chew is group account director at Fuel Communications


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