Perfectionism: Is It Part of Your Museum’s Culture?

Perfection

When you work in a highly competitive high school like I do, you have to think about perfectionism because daily you deal with students who truly can’t stop. They get too little sleep, and work compulsively.  Even their concept of recreation is sometimes a resume builder clad in another costume. And it’s peculiar how this culture of “never enough” seeps into the lives of adults in the community as well. As usual, that made me think about a) museums and b) the perfect being the enemy of the good.

In the for-profit world there are about a million books for people struggling with needing to be too perfect at work. But what about the museum world? Do we have issues with perfectionism? I suspect so.  Does the fact that so many museums are under-resourced leave staff and leadership reaching for perfection in attempt to save money? Is that because in a world where money is tight, there’s no room for the less than perfect? As a leader, have you figured out how to differentiate between mediocre big-concept ideas delivered in a tightly controlled way and looser more creative concepts that prompt more audience response?

To begin, let’s acknowledge that, irony of ironies, perfection is unattainable, and then remind ourselves that it’s not necessarily a good thing. And yet some days we don’t want it any less. How many of you grapple with experimenting versus completion? Do you put the brakes on new ideas because somehow it seems more important just to get the exhibit/program/event/fund raiser (you pick one) finished rather than try something new? Does that stifle staff creativity? If you said yes, know that you’re not alone. It’s hard to be flexible enough for idea-making and yet driven enough to complete the punch list.

One of the problems some perfectionist people and cultures experience is that they or the organization becomes overwhelmed by details. The weeds are never too high to keep them from wandering in and thrashing about. In a perfectionist culture this means that in a heart beat meetings go off track as staff try to solve problems that aren’t the main point. It’s like cooking a four-course meal before going to the grocery store, and as leaders, we have to be aware of what’s happening and gently steer the ship back on course.  In addition, in a perfectionist culture it is difficult to prioritize.  When everything has to be done perfectly, it’s hard to put a value on one task versus another.

Perfectionists also have problems delegating. They place the bar so high, that it’s unlikely anyone can fulfill even the most menial of tasks. Sometimes this leads to a “gotcha” backlash where in the spirit of no-amount-of-effort-is-enough, staff pick apart each other’s work, another moment where the watchful leader will gently counsel respect and understanding.

New research also shows that it is possible to be a perfectionist and not be neurotic, nor drive your colleagues crazy. According to this article from New York Magazine, healthy perfectionists are the folks who are likely to be happy with the results of their hard work versus their neurotic workmates who are never satisfied. If you’re interested in plotting your own levels of perfectionism, you can take this quiz included with the article.

There are many moments where we as leaders need to counterbalance perfectionism with the idea that it’s okay to let go and experiment. Success–even small victories–from experimentation rather than rigid adherence to rules breeds confidence and confidence breeds more success. To read more about this try Nina Simon’s blog, particularly this post. Or Creativity in Museum Practice by Linda Norris & Rainey Tisdale.

And as always, share your stories of success (and failure–that’s a different blog post!) with us here.

Joan Baldwin

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