I’ve been coaching executives for about six years now. Recently I was working with a leader who proudly identified himself as a perfectionist. He considered it a badge of honor that he routinely works ten to twelve hours each day. Even now, in his sixties, he has his company cellphone on him at all times and feels he needs to respond to emails, texts, and calls right away. When I asked him if he could set a lower expectation—such as replying within 24 hours—it seemed like a foreign concept to him.
This leader told me, unsolicited, that working so much meant he had missed many of his daughters’ milestones growing up. When they were kids, he told his daughters nothing was acceptable but A+ effort. He is proud that he set such high standards and believes his kids are successful because of those standards. I wonder whether he imposed his standards on his daughters to the degree that they, too, will miss out on parts of their lives trying to be perfect.
Over the years, I’ve heard many renditions of perfectionistic tendencies from my clients. This tends to show up most often when I’m debriefing a 360 or other assessment with them. It surprises and saddens me that many with the highest assessment scores—obviously very qualified people—don’t believe they are doing all that well. Inevitably, most of these people are perfectionists. Their perfectionism distorts their thinking.
Most of us believe it’s good to have high standard. Working hard and performing well are positive qualities. But there’s a difference between having a strong work ethic and striving for perfection.
When I Googled perfectionism, I found a quote from my old friend Wikipedia that sums up the definition well: “Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness AND setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”
Perfectionism is a huge, complex subject. My intention here is to touch on just a few simple but effective ways people can begin to combat their perfectionistic tendencies.
- Recognize your own perfectionistic tendencies. Increasing your self-awareness of perfectionistic thinking patterns and/or behavioral tendencies is very enlightening.
- Notice your critical internal dialogue (which is usually hard to miss). An effective way to disrupt those self-critical thoughts is to replace them with more realistic and helpful statements—often called affirmations. Every time the internal critic surfaces, silence it with an affirmation. One I like is “I’m okay just as I am.”
- Try living by a “done is better than perfect” philosophy. I first heard this statement from my boss. It’s a good one. As a recovering perfectionist myself, this thought has stopped me many times when I’ve found myself working to make something perfect. Of course, for most perfectionists, their “done” is usually much better than their non-perfectionistic colleagues’ best efforts.
Why should organizations care about helping their perfectionistic employees, you ask? Because perfectionism is linked to accident-related disabilities, absenteeism, burnout, and turnover.
Do you, or someone you know, tend to be perfectionistic? Try these first steps and let us know how they work for you. We’d love to hear your thoughts!
About the Author
Joanne Maynard is a senior coach with The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team. Since 2000, Blanchard’s 130 coaches have worked with over 14,500 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.