Call it a fact or a blanket statement. But, in our experience at least, translation companies tend to attract – and hire – more perfectionists than they do other personality types.

On the face of it, building a culture of perfectionism makes sense for LSPs. After all, if quality is your main selling point, it surely pays to surround yourself with translators, project managers and support staff who refuse to accept anything but the best.

But while perfection is an admirable aim, the pursuit of it can be endless and draining. And in a profession ruled by deadlines, time and energy are two resources that none of us can afford to burn.

There has to be a trade-off, then, between getting things perfect and getting them done. But how do you find that middle ground without letting standards slip?

Recognising the good

We should start by saying that we see perfectionism as a valuable trait, and that we prize it in our employees and suppliers.

Indeed, we’d rather have a company full of perfectionists than a workforce that sees OK as good enough – and STP’s recruitment policy has always reflected that.

Precision, clarity and compliance are so important in our line of business, and we find that perfectionists tend to have the above-average levels of diligence and attention to detail needed to succeed.

Perfectionists, we’ve also found, generally have a stronger work ethic, and a more innate commitment to doing the best possible job. And since they hold themselves to such high standards, each new project is a chance to do better.

This helps to create an atmosphere of constant improvement, which benefits everyone in the company. Not to mention our clients.

… and the not so good

That said, we also know that unchecked perfectionism can cause problems. You may well have witnessed or experienced some of them yourself.

In some, perfectionism creates an almost paralysing fear of failure. For translators, this can lead to excessive attention to detail and endless reworking – to the point where quality actually suffers, and deadlines become hard to meet.

The effect can be similar for project managers. When chasing perfection, it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of projects and lose sight of the bigger picture. That is: delivering on time, on budget and to the client’s specification.

Channelled in the wrong directions, perfectionism can also stifle innovation and creativity. The most successful marketing campaigns, and the best technical solutions, nearly always grow from imperfect ideas. A perfectionist’s instinct, however, is often to shut down those ideas before they have a chance to flourish.

Treading the tightrope

So, how can you harness the positive power of perfectionism while limiting its negative side effects?

We think the answer is to encourage balance, and to try to focus your company’s perfectionist energies where they are most needed. In practice, this involves redefining perfection to mean something closer to excellence.

Perfection is, in essence, unattainable – whereas excellence is difficult but achievable. When your goal is to deliver a perfect project, you have an impossible task from the start, with no objective measure of success. This creates stress, makes it difficult to know where to concentrate your efforts, and can lead to wasted time and patchy quality.

An excellent project, however, is an extremely good one. Extremely good implies having the required qualities plus something extra. And when you focus on the ‘required qualities,’ the client’s specification is always at the front of your mind. This gives you a clearer focus for your perfectionist streak, and is the surest route to a happy customer.

As for the something extra: well, another thing we’ve observed about perfectionists is that they rarely work in half measures. So when a perfectionist aims for excellence, you can usually count on the results being exceptional by most standards.

The outcome of striving for excellent, then, is effectively the same as when aiming for perfect. The difference is that shooting for concrete excellence produces less stress, self-doubt and inefficiency than working for abstract perfection.

In the end, we must always remember that we’re in the business of customer service. And that, no matter how strong our personal inclinations, the client’s definition of perfect is the only one that should matter.

This article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of STP’s Icebreaker newsletter.

Translation industry