All About You

All About You: The harmful pressure of perfect performance


EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

Attention to detail. It was a clarion call when I worked in the nuclear industry, especially for control room operators. All mistakes were viewed as avoidable mishaps that resulted from a lack of expected, constant focus. 

Shortly after leaving my full-time position as a safety and health professional in the nuclear field, I got a few gigs helping operators better handle stress just days before their walk-through test with a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector. The test was intense. If you failed, you had to go back and attend several weeks of training, and it was humiliating. If you passed, you got your reactor operator’s license, which meant a significant advance in your career. 

My sessions on stress lasted two days, so I got to know many of the operators well – enough to find out about their personal lives. A common theme among the operators was that they had relationship problems because their jobs demanded they “be perfect.” That attitude spilled over into their life off the job. They expected their significant other, their children and even people they hired to work on their homes to rise to the same level of perfection they were expected to achieve at work. 

We safety and health pros can fall into the same trap: Our efforts to achieve zero incidents and remove or avoid every hazard are worthwhile, but reaching that level of perfect performance – especially all the time – is harmful. It’s also impossible to attain.

Consider children: They’ve got to make mistakes to grow. That’s not to say we should encourage risky behavior, but rather to learn and enjoy life. Even we safety and health pros shouldn’t expect perfection from ourselves and others.

Not demanding perfection means embracing the profound truth that life is sloppy. Trying to control (or fix) everything is frustrating and fruitless. Depending on the intent and outcome, doing something “wrong” is no worse than doing something right. 

The few times I’ve forgotten to call a client when scheduled, I mentally beat myself up over it. Not because it meant lost revenue, but because I made a “stupid” mistake. I’ve now realized there’s no way I’ll always remember to call every client every time I’m supposed to, even if I use an excellent contact manager program (which I do). 

Notice the positive

Looking for the positive can be tough to do; like the nuclear operator, a core part of the safety and health pro’s work is to notice and remove hazardous conditions and behaviors. 

When you visit a jobsite, you’re looking for things that are “wrong.” After a while, you may develop a habit of doing the same in all situations – even outside of work. What can help temper this tendency is to make it a habit to purposely look for what you like and what is “right” about a situation, person or even your behavior before noticing anything negative. 

Perfection is boring

I have all kinds of sayings, props, puppets and pictures decorating my office. One quote in white on a black block of wood prominently positioned on my wall is, “Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius, and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” Comedy is a prime example of imperfection’s charm. Most of the funny things that occur in our lives involve errors. 

Think about a hilarious event that you’ve experienced. Probably, it involves something unexpected and out of the norm. I feel confident that it doesn’t include a “perfect date” or “perfect trip.” Here’s a paradox: Striving for perfection means you must strive to make mistakes. A key lesson from this is that you shouldn’t beat yourself up when you don’t do everything you think you’re supposed to – because nobody does.

So, don’t distress over your lack of perfection. Nature offers a beautiful example: There’s an old oak tree in my front yard that I take delight in. It has many notches and scars, but its imperfections add to its beauty. So do yours.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps safety professionals become better leaders through his keynotes, workshops, articles and books so they can create vibrant safety cultures. His popular “Mindfully Safe” keynote teaches employees how to focus better and improve their situational awareness, a key skill to preventing incidents. To contact Richard, visit

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