We can all contribute to a more just and equitable workplace that rejects white supremacy. One way is to address the pursuit of perfectionism in our training programs.
Life at the new job has been eventful. After completing an accreditation visit, my work has returned to normal and I have begun to add supervision to my list of responsibilities. There is nothing I love more than a good onboarding meeting. For reals, I love training new staff! Because we just had the accreditation visit, I wanted to share lessons I learned about our files and how to use the file room. Last week, when I was talking to our new MSW intern about the file room process, I emphasized that I value humanity over perfectionism. That I was not interested in fueling approaches that fed into white supremacy.
She looked at me like I was speaking a different language. But also with intrigue, so I continued.
I knew that I jumped past two or three meetings to approach my philosophy about dismantling systems of oppression. But really, this conversation wasn’t on the onboarding checklist, so I decided to just go all-in and approach the topic anyway. I talked about how, among other things, white supremacy demands a right way versus wrong way, that mistakes made are scrutinized over progress towards a goal, and that its root in puritanism (that one’s actions reflected their Godliness) dismissed other cultural approaches to work, especially in a shared workplace.
Why This Topic and Why Now?
I work for an organization whose mission is to “help people who face barriers to work obtain employment and achieve self-sufficiency through innovative job training, placement and support services.” If we are in the business of helping people achieve employment, we should model as best we can the kind of environment where anyone can thrive. By acknowledging our perpetuation of the same systems of oppression that are barriers for others to find work, we can and should do all we can to eliminate our own barriers to a more just and inclusive world.
And the file room topic was the right example.
Over the past couple of years, I have read countless stories of new professionals expressing their frustration with their jobs. Of feeling the need to be perfect. And working for people who, on paper, espoused the ideals of social justice to those they served but were less successful in its application to their own staff.
I have never personally approached staff training as an opportunity to reinforce perfectionism. But I have certainly worked for offices that have. And it was painful for me to share those ideas as if they were my own. And given a chance to switch up the game, I took it.
I have never been a fan of perfection. But I know that many are drawn to it, either consciously or unconsciously. And because it can happen unconsciously, we often assume everyone is measuring their success against these unwritten rules. We dread being called out for not following the rules. Put more time and energy into avoiding being called out just in case. We don’t want to be ‘other-ed’ and stand out. And we believe that following these rules makes us look better among our peers.
For many new folks in the workplace, professional behavior is defined against this perfectionist standard. Anything less than perfect calls your professionalism into question. When we consider the intersection of class, gender, educational status, race, and ethnicity into professional expectations, we can start to see how chasing perfectionism is closely intertwined.
Explore The Topic
Once we know and understand the connection between perfectionism culture, professional expectations, and white supremacy, we can and should do something. Start with learning more about the topic! Organizer/scholar Tema Okun has written about this connection since the 90s. While I probably read about this years ago, it was good to revisit the topic again as I help prepare new professionals in the nonprofit world.
Below are a few links to explore on your own:
- Perfectionism and White Supremacy: https://publicallies.org/perfectionism-and-white-supremacy/
- White Supremacy Culture: https://www.thc.texas.gov/public/upload/preserve/museums/files/White_Supremacy_Culture.pdf
- The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_bias_of_professionalism_standards#
- One Right Way: https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/one-right-way.html
My New Approach
My approach now is to talk about intentions and frameworks in the work we do. How we “get there” is less important – and that mistakes are just opportunities to revisit our intentions and framework.
If something was unclear in training, then we can re-train on the framework. If something was misplaced in the files, we can talk about its impact and if the impact should lead to more training or whether the framework needs to be expanded to include this new process. Above all, as the supervisor, I am the one held likewise accountable. Either to provide more training or to change the framework. After these have been exhausted, then we can look at holding staff accountable, too.
Sharing this level of accountability acknowledges that change is a natural part of being professional. This flies in the face of being perfect if we can change the rules when they stop making sense.
Rejecting perfectionism, as a learned behavior in a professional workplace, feels natural nowadays. It allows me to think and act with empathy, rather than with rigid rules that add to the imposter syndrome new professionals face in their training programs.
I plan to revisit this topic more frequently. Feel free to add to this conversation below!