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Trust beats perfection

Sanna Stefansson
Sanna Stefansson
3 min read
Trust beats perfection

Back in my corporate days, when I was in the office working 9-to-5, I learned the ropes of consultancy and project management by being wholly absorbed in my work for years and making approximately 374 mistakes on a daily basis. One particular lesson, or rather a four-year-long course, is what I want to write about here: trust beats perfection.

As humans, we want to feel safe, and while we may joke about our clients acting like extraterrestrial monsters at times, they are as human as you are (probably, at least), with responsibilities, insecurities, and a lot of shit that goes on under the surface. Your job is to make them feel safe with you. If they don't, it doesn't matter that you have the most optimized timeline in the industry and all the perfect spreadsheets.

I learned this the hard way by working with the most infamous clients we had at the time, closely observing how my more experienced colleagues ran the show, listening to their advice, and eventually, learning how to get the rogue clients on my side. But what made me put it all together was spelled out by my driving instructor.

I decided to learn to drive when I was 28, and I failed my driving test twice. After the second time, my teacher told me to pull over to the side of the road and stop the car. He turned to me and asked if I knew why I failed.
"Yes, I drove too slow when coming out on the main road, and I waited too long at the roundabout," I said, repeating what the test instructor told me.
"Wrong," he said. "He could tell you were nervous and that made him feel unsafe. If they don't feel safe with you, they don't want to have you out on the roads. It won't matter how perfect you drive; they will find a reason to fail you."

This might sound obvious to you, but for me, this was one of those aha-moments I'll never forget.

I realized that was what I was doing at work. I was far from a perfect consultant and project manager, I could easily create a long list of all my errors on any given day, and yet, my projects moved forward. We kept our deadlines, and while challenges were happening daily, my clients handled them well, staying calm. The key was trust. They knew I was being honest with what happened every step of the way, and they trusted the team and me to solve whatever came up.

On my third driving test, my focus was not driving perfectly as it had been on my previous attempts. As I sat behind the wheel, my intention was to stay calm and build a connection with the test instructor. With my dedicated hip hop road trip playlist in the background, I chatted away with the instructor, trying to find common ground, as I did with clients. Out of my three attempts, this was undoubtedly the worst, from a perfection standpoint. My parking was sloppy, so close to another car I couldn't even open the door, and I made several minor mistakes. But when we drove by a stable we started talking about horses, and it turned out we had both been horse girls .The rest of the drive we shared war stories from taking care of our ponies in Swedish winter (no small accomplishment let me tell you, I had to defrost my toes every day).

When we finished and pulled over, she turned to me. "Happy to say you passed the test. I have absolutely nothing to comment on." She trusted me, and trust matters more than being perfect.

(Fun fact: my favorite topic I managed to bond with a client over on was a love for a Russian sci-fi book. The collaboration went ten times smoother from that day on.)

Manage projects without losing your mind

Sanna Stefansson

Lisbon-based Swede who dabbles in creative writing and has too many hobbies. By day I lead product development in a marketing agency and advocate for working remotely.