Well over two centuries ago, French author Voltaire wrote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
It’s human nature, as relevant today as it was back then--perfectionism is a common trait, particularly among successful people.
Yet if perfectionism were a prescription drug, it would bear a hefty warning label:
“A perfectionist approach may cause your best and brightest people to become unmotivated, devalued, dependent, disempowered, frustrated, and ultimately disengaged. You put them at risk for doing marginal work, and for leaving. It leads to procrastination, and tends to take a toll of stress on yourself and others in your organization.”
Even so, many leaders wear their perfectionism as a badge of honor. When I ask them about it, they will say, almost with a wink, “Maybe it’s a problem.” And the subtext is, “… but probably not.”
In fact, as I dig underneath the behavior I find they believe perfectionism is a part of what got them to where they are. This tends to hold the behavior in place for long periods of time, and makes it harder to address and change. Yet change IS possible.
Three Steps for Managing Perfectionism’s Side Effects
1. Recognize that it’s a weakness masquerading as a strength.
Your perfectionism isn’t a driver to success—it’s a barrier. You got to where you are based on being capable and motivated, and despite the side effects of perfectionism. You won’t ever truly change your perfectionist ways without accepting it’s a liability and not an asset.
2. Catch, then catch and correct your perfectionist behavior.
Once you’ve done step one, above, it’s time to start noticing it. Make notes about when your requests or demands of people are perfectionist in nature. Ask those you trust to help you notice such situations. Next, begin to correct yourself when it happens. Practice, practice, practice. If you’re doing it right, it will make you feel slightly uncomfortable for a while.
3. Set your standards to recognize the distinction between perfect and excellent.
A higher-performing core belief is this: “I have high standards—I strive and help my people strive for excellence, even as I understand that perfect is an unreasonable goal. When we fall short of excellence, we take time to learn from it, and to help each other be at our best in the future. We accept our work and life as less than perfect.
Even after making good progress, when you are under unusual stress, you may revert to perfectionism. It’s but a setback. Stick with it. Do I need to say it? Don’t hold yourself to perfection in letting go of your perfectionism.
Be patient. Practice. Enroll others to help you notice your behavior. For every year you work on this, you’ll get about a second of response time between when you WANT to be perfectionist, and when you actually do the behavior (i.e., send the email, pick up the phone, etc.) And a second is all we need.
The Recovering Leader