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Practice Makes…Less Than Perfect? The Risks of Perfectionism

by Stefanie Mockler on

Do any of the quotes below sound familiar?

“I set very high standards for my team, and at times, I can push for perfection.”

“I don’t expect perfection from others, but I will spend as much time as needed to get a deliverable to meet my standards.”

“I recognize I can be critical, but it’s really just because I want to achieve outstanding results!”

“I can miss deadlines because I want to make sure I’m turning in the highest quality work.”

At Vantage, we utilize a combination of psychometric tools and behavioral interviewing to better understand the leaders we work with, while also helping them gain self-awareness regarding their reputation, behaviors, motivations, and preferences. Lately, I’ve worked with several professionals who describe themselves as “perfectionists” and mention some version of the above during our conversation. This isn’t surprising, given that I often work with high-performing, driven achievers.

The Many Guises of Perfection

Perfectionism in the workplace (and in our personal lives) manifests itself in a variety of ways — and these aren’t uniformly negative. Some of the trademark behaviors can make professionals shine: high standards, a strong work ethic, careful and meticulous work, and strong follow-through. These are often signs of a person who will deliver results, time and time again. However, this becomes particularly problematic for people leaders, as it can result in micromanaging behaviors, difficultly prioritizing work, and inadvertently disempowering others. Eventually, it can even lead to burnout because it’s simply not a sustainable approach toward work.

I would know because I’m in the club – let’s just call it Perfectionists Anonymous for now (soon to become Recovering Perfectionists; read on for more). When I hear quotes like those listed above, you better believe I’m empathizing hard with the person I’m speaking with.

My perfectionism tends to be more self-oriented, and usually rears its ugly head when I’m under pressure, nearing an important deadline, or feeling overwhelmed. In these situations, I find myself digging deeper into the details of my work, becoming overly critical of insignificant minutia, and getting lost in (admittedly low-impact) tasks. These behaviors are the enemies of productivity and efficiency – thus, it becomes critical to (1) recognize when they are getting in the way, and (2) have strategies in place to move past them.

Balancing High Standards with High Impact

My colleague Rich McGourty suggests that perfectionism can be a result of a need for control, which begs the question: Control to what end? Or, as Rich put it: Why is it so important to not make a mistake?

Some would suggest that perfectionists view the world in relatively black-and-white terms, believing that there are two dichotomous outcomes in any situation: perfection or failure. You can see how this would lead to having difficultly with relaxing standards – doing so would be viewed as failure rather than simply good enough work.

I’ve become decent at recognizing (and quickly minimizing) these tendencies in my life, but it continues to be a work in progress. After all, we’re talking about some pretty deeply engrained tendencies that develop and unfold over time. So, the key is to find ways to MANAGE this and importantly, MINIMIZE its impact – both for the individual as well as the people he/she works with.

A newly-promoted manager I recently worked with admitted these tendencies, and asked, “What can I do about this? How can I manage these behaviors? I’ve so often been rewarded for my high standards, and I’m having a tough time seeing how this is a bad thing.”

The key for her was the fact that she was taking on a team for the first time; while she didn’t feel her work as an individual contributor suffered from these tendencies (in fact, she felt they made her a stronger performer), she could clearly see how they would impact her team.

To help her out, I sought out advice from my trusty and brilliant colleagues at Vantage and received a slew of great material and thoughts regarding perfectionism: where it comes from, its impacts, and how to manage it.

So, check out the resources below, and join the Recovering Perfectionists Club.

  • When leading people, ensure you set mutually agreed upon expectations that feel appropriately challenging, yet realistic to everyone. This can help minimize a tendency to set an unrealistically high bar.
  • Engage in self-regulation behaviors to identify when these behaviors become a hindrance – for example, recognize signals that you’re too deep in the details and wasting time (e.g., spending a lot of time playing with fonts/colors/bullets in a PowerPoint versus focusing on the priority: the content).
  • Recognize that “good enough” solutions are often effective and valuable.
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate. And, avoid the impulse to take back work when it’s not to your standards. If you feel yourself being overly critical, solicit a colleague’s input. Relatedly…
  • Ask for help. Perfectionists can get so caught up in their own work that they miss opportunities to solicit a different perspective.
  • Recognize preferences versus priorities. Avoid imposing preferences on others, as this can stifle creativity and make others feel disempowered to do things their way.
  • Read Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and letting go of expectations we put on ourselves. Start here with her fantastic Ted Talk.

Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? What’s the impact, and how do you manage any tendencies that get in your way? Tell us in the comments below!

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