The pitfalls of being perfect
While it’s good to have an eye for detail, the quest for precision can sometimes distract leaders from the larger purpose
As leaders move forward in their race to the C-suite, being great at what they do is a natural asset. Surprisingly, being really good may also be a major roadblock to the next level of thinking and performance that leadership demands.
As people move through the competitive maze, the need to get things right becomes increasingly essential. The fear that mistakes may offer an advantage to critics or professional rivals soon grows into a personal standard of exactitude that is easy to defend and hold on to. After all, who will fault a leader for saying, “I like to be accurate,” or “I deeply value diligence and thoroughness in myself and others.”
The most dangerous thing about perfectionism is that it disguises itself as a virtue. Is it surprising, then, to see an increasing number of leaders being ensnared by the perfectionism bug?
Leaders often ask, “What’s wrong with producing superlative work?” Nothing. But are they able to draw the line between being excellent and being fault-less? Do they notice when precision starts meaning that their work is above criticism? Sometimes the yearning for tireless precision can spell doom for their careers and personal lives.
Enemy of innovation and creativity: Innovation begins with exploration and fearless experimentation. Perfectionism is often the obstacle that stands between leaders and a messy start. The fear that things may not go as planned holds them back from the random trials, mistakes and failures that are a necessary part of the creative journey. Also, the tried-and-tested structures that they build for themselves often create subconscious mental patterns that limit their thinking.
Engenders rigidity: The pursuit of a fault-less ideal creates strong mental beliefs about the “best way” to do things. Leaders get hooked to doing things the “right” way and stick to the “safe” and proven method. This often also blocks them from listening to alternative points of view and suggestions.
Fosters risk aversion: The ability to take calculated risks is an important skill for effective leaders and the fear of making mistakes often makes perfectionists severely risk-averse. Taking risks logically means they are prepared that things might go wrong, something perfectionists would rather avoid. This makes them naturally avoid projects that have a chance of failure, and rarely allows them to make effective decisions in scenarios that involve accepting failure as a possible consequence.
Kills productivity: In a world where time is money, leaders don’t always have the luxury of poring over every detail till they get it just right. The need to produce perfection can adversely affect productivity not only because it takes longer to finish every task, but also because it takes more mental effort to even get started. The increased workload as well as angst created in the quest for perfection can take the joy out of almost anything.
Destroys ability to build trust: Since perfectionists always produce a higher standard of precision, it might seem logical that they would attract trust. However, perfectionists rarely inspire trust in initial interactions. When meeting someone new, warmth and personal connect is more crucial than pure competence. Personal connect requires you to be human, to be vulnerable, not perfect. The aura of perfectionism can be a major trust turn-off in new associations. In addition, the perfectionist’s demanding and often critical ways can further damage the trust quotient.
Increases stress: Studies have found stress levels to be significantly higher in perfectionists, for obvious reasons. The urge to reach a sometimes unattainable standard of excellence creates an incessant sense of dissatisfaction and inadequacy where nothing feels good enough.
Severely damages personal relationships: The relentless pursuit of a lofty ideal rarely leaves time to invest in healthy relationships. In addition, the unattainable standards leaders set for themselves soon begin to extend to others. And before they know it, criticism and fault-finding become second nature, whether expressed or not.
The final nail in the coffin is the scathing self-talk. A nagging sense of dissatisfaction is natural to perfectionists. The constant race to master perfection, combined with the mental anguish of dealing with perceived failures, rarely allows them to love and accept themselves. The toll on personal relationships is inevitable.
It is time to stop celebrating perfectionism. “Perfect” is not something that is possible to create every time and, honestly, it is not even desirable. In fact, it often covers up a latent fear of not being good enough, of not being better than the competition, of not living up to the hype we have created about ourselves.
The following suggestions will help to control the perfectionist urge and channelize the energy to create realistic excellence.
Identify your fears: What are you afraid might happen if you produce a less-than-perfect outcome? Knowing the answer to this question is an important step to understanding and defeating perfectionism.
Confront your limiting beliefs: Ask yourself what makes you hold on to perfectionism. Are you using perfectionism as a shield to protect yourself from criticism that you can’t handle? Do you find it difficult to accept competition? Are you subconsciously seeking external approval or validation? Have you convinced yourself that this is essential for your success?
Be realistic: The pursuit of quality and excellence is a desirable ideal. But the distress over every small flaw, the unrealistic standards and constant dissatisfaction can undermine you. Recognize and question your standards at every step. Make sure they are realistic and achievable.
Love yourself and accept your flaws: Mistakes are what make us human, and the quality of our mistakes and our ability to learn from them shapes who we are. It is your flaws that make you unique. Accepting not just your own but also others’ flaws is a critical step in overcoming the negative effects of perfectionism.
Look forward: While introspection is great, over-analysing the past and agonizing over what you could have done better can be counterproductive. Take a moment to list the lessons and keep moving forward.
Yes, there are specialized roles and tasks that require a great level of precision, but as you rise to become a leader of people and business, the limitations far outweigh the advantages.
Shweta HandaGupta is the founder of QuadraBrain® Transformation Solutions. She works with board level, CxOs and potential leaders as a leadership coach, facilitator and change expert.