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How Perfectionism Kills Excellence

By Constanza Busto
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Have you ever struggled to establish a trusting relationship with a perfectionist boss? Some people believe perfectionism is a positive trait. They believe it fuels us to raise the bar in the pursuit of excellence. However, if you have ever tried to manage the expectations of a perfectionist in your life, then you can attest that it does not drive effectiveness. On the contrary, perfectionism kills excellence, harms relationships, compromises results in the long term, and generates frustration and disappointment.

 

The Perfectionist

For someone who has strong perfectionist traits, nothing is good if it is not perfect. The drive for perfection sets unreal standards for the individual and those around them.  A perfectionist will focus on the task and results over the team and the individual. This person will tend to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

They will be personally tuned in to all the details, taking on more than they can handle. This leader and their team will work hard for strenuous, long hours to accomplish the task… but it will still not be good enough.

For a perfectionist, establishing close relationships is tough. Perfectionists tend to alienate those around them. They do not trust others can complete the task flawlessly, so they try to control it by micromanaging each step of the process. People then disengage and disconnect, feeling oppressed and disempowered.

At an individual level, perfectionists are mainly trying to prove themselves and others right. Their self-worth is built on being seen as competent and flawless, by winning over others and delivering what they believe is expected of them: perfection. Perfectionists will often feel irritated, frustrated, and disappointed with themselves and their team for under-delivering according to unachievable standards.

 

Why do people think perfectionism drives sustainable results?

There is some common ground between a culture that embodies achievement and the one that promotes perfectionism: the drive, determination, and energy towards accomplishing the task and the commitment towards the quality of the outcome.

However, an organization that fosters a culture of achievement is continuously setting excellence standards (vs unrealistic standards of perfectionism). They look for new ways to become better, developing a growth mindset as the principle that underlies the culture. Fostering psychological safety and collaboration is key for teams and individuals to excel.  Failure in these types of organizations becomes part of the game. It is seen and lived by its members as an opportunity to learn, adapt, and continue improving. For a perfectionist, failure is difficult to embrace. It is directly related to one of their fears: not being good enough.

 

What are the differences between a perfectionist leader and an effective leader?

 

 

Perfectionism kills excellence. How can we move from being a perfectionist to an effective leader?

 

  1. Commit to fewer goals (no more than 3 at once): Do not lose sight of the WHY (purpose). Reflect on how each goal contributes to your purpose and prioritize your goals in terms of impact. When setting goals, frame them in terms of growth (e.g: improving from X to Y) and make sure they are realistic and possible, considering the timeframe.
  2. Focus & practice letting go: When delegating tasks to your team, start small. Choose tasks/projects that represent a lower risk for you. Then agree on a process with your team where you can jointly review the progress in a way that everyone feels comfortable.
  3. Get to know your team better: Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Explore how each person can contribute to creating impact. Test and learn. Challenge yourself to think outside of the box and invite others to try new things. People experience a flow state when working on something they feel passionate about.
  4. Ask for feedback from your peers & direct reports: Make time for After Action Reviews after each major task/project completion. Appreciate what has worked well and reflect on what could you have done differently to contribute effectively to the project. Ask for specific feedback on your improvement goal from others. Let others know your developmental path and encourage them to offer feedback when they experience you moving away from your goal.
  5. Be kind to yourself: Practice self-compassion. Perfectionists work towards unrealistic standards which generate frustration and feeds the “inner critic” that shouts, “you are not good enough”. Practice expressing gratitude and connecting with what works. Journaling is a powerful way to reflect and it reduces stress. Try this simple journaling exercise:

    In the morning, ask yourself:
    What would make today a wonderful day? What do I feel grateful for?
    At night: What good things happened today?

 

Conclusion

Our VUCA context requires leaders to develop a learning agility and be able to anticipate and adapt to constant changes. In order to do this, we need to be able to cope with failure and setbacks, learn, and strengthen our resilience. Perfectionist traits hinder change and effectiveness but can be overcome by developing the right mindsets (growth & learner) and being compassionate with our own self and others.

 

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