Examining our Relationship with Perfectionism, Regeneration, and White Supremacy Work Culture

Mountain valley in the springtime with yellow sunflowers popping up in a grassy field with white snow on the hillside

We began 2022 by re-committing to our journey of becoming a regenerative organization. We dug deeper into how the regenerative framework both guides our approach to furthering health equity and intersects with our desire to dismantle white supremacy culture in the workplace. This past month, Trailhead’s core staff had a series of conversations on the topic of perfectionism, discussing how this trait shows up personally, structurally, and systemically in our work and poses challenges to our growth, development and well-being. What began as a personal reflection written by Trailhead’s Executive Director Sarah Lampe (shared below) evolved into two all-staff meetings on the topic and most importantly, a desire to continue this necessary conversation around perfectionism and dismantling other ideals embedded in white supremacy culture.

Shared here are several reflections, resources and questions we’re holding around this topic. We invite you to join us in considering what change as a field may be possible if we shed the impossible expectation to be perfect with ourselves and one another. Included in the section “Where Do We Go From Here?” is a link to share input, questions and reflections so that we may consider new perspectives on this topic as we continue this conversation among Trailhead’s core staff.

The Potential of Imperfect Partnership

A reflection from Sarah Lampe and the Trailhead team

The pandemic has been a time that has stretched communities and organizations beyond their capacities and beyond their limits. I would love to say “We tried our best and there were mistakes, but we learned and everything will get better,” but that is not always necessarily true. Mistakes are made in all of our work. We are humans. We are imperfect in nature, and with this comes a knowing that we will try to improve and it will be messy.

Last month, we shared that we’re learning from a set of regenerative design principles as we deepen our understanding of how our journey to become a regenerative organization intersects with dismantling white supremacy work culture.  We also committed to sharing how we’re translating these learnings into practice here at Trailhead.

The expectation of perfection is one such ideal that is steeped in white supremacy culture that is deeply harmful and adds fuel to the widespread burnout being experienced throughout our field.

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Examining Perfectionism through nRhythm’s Intentional Disturbance Exercise

One of the tools we turned to to help us unpack our experiences with perfectionism and desire for change is nRhythm’s Intentional Disturbance Exercise. Written by Tre’ Cates, nRhythm’s Managing Director, the Intentional Disturbance Exercise is designed to explore how informational disturbance – the intentional examination of existing ideas, patterns and behaviors – promotes the cycling of information and creates the conditions for new perspectives, knowledge and insights to emerge.

Focusing specifically on perfectionism as defined by Tema Okun as a characteristic of white supremacy culture, we considered the following questions in an abbreviated format of nRhythm’s Intentional Disturbance Exercise:

  • What needs to die?
  • What do you need to stop doing?
  • What have you learned from something you recently stopped doing?
  • What is ready to come alive?
  • How can you use a recent learning to design something new?
  • What needs more resources to support growth?

Shared anonymously via Jamboard, it became apparent in the responses that while perfectionist thinking and expectations may often be internally felt, we are hardly alone in our experiences with the pressure to avoid mistakes. We talked about the ways in which reading one another’s responses felt humanizing and the importance of bringing these reflections to others in our field with the hope that such conversations can lead to cultivating organizational change and greater health in our partnerships.

Being Mindful of Privilege

All the while, we recognize the challenges associated with our desire for this cultural change. As a longstanding public health institute with a robust network of relationships and a history of access to funding, we hold considerable organizational power and greater capacity to question perfectionist ideals than partners from marginalized communities. We recognize that partners who have historically been under-resourced carry a greater burden of meeting perfectionist standards when serving communities who also have been historically underserved and oppressed.

Key Themes

In identifying the ways we experience perfectionism in our work, three key themes emerged from the Intentional Disturbance Exercise:

  1. Audits were named as one such example of this in addition to measuring success by prescriptive “best practices” rather than meaningful output.

  2. Recurring examples of personal experiences with perfectionism included fear around making mistakes; holding feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt; over-committing one’s time and capacity while attributing worth to large quantities of work output; being fearful of asking for feedback and/or input; and feeling the need to always present one’s “best” self.

  3. Perfectionism is also experienced interpersonally

    Examples of interpersonal perfectionism included expecting perfection from others despite knowing this is an unrealistic standard; feeling like someone has to take the blame when something goes wrong; defaulting to the assumption that we are not all doing our best; responding with defensiveness when faced with new ideas or questions.

Where Do We Go From Here?

With these thoughts in mind, we see conversation as both a starting point and a next step as we continue to discuss how to disrupt the ways we experience perfectionism in our work. Included below are a few organizational practices we’ve designed to promote greater growth, health, and  well-being  in the workplace. We also invite you to share your thoughts with us through the button below.

Share Your Thoughts With Us

Designing for Well-Being & Development

  1. Monthly Virtual Support Group

    Trailhead has been hosting a Monthly Virtual Support Group since the start of the pandemic and starting last fall, these groups have focused on The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. Staff can drop in at any time and each session has explored how to let go of specific perfectionistic tendencies at work and in life and how to embrace guideposts for wholehearted living.

  2. Re-designing Performance Reviews

    We have replaced traditional performance reviews with Reflection Forms designed to capture our plans and dreams for our work, and to reflect on our whole-self in relationship to those plans. Reflection Forms are completed three times annually.

  3. Valuing Lived Experience

    We value lived experience in the hiring process rather than determining capability solely on educational and professional attainment

Resources Guiding Our Learning