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Perfectionism – the pitfalls of being a slave to success

James BrookJames Brook, co-founder and Director Strengths Partnership Ltd

We meet many perfectionists in the course of our work. A lot of these are in senior managerial and leadership positions, which is of course no surprise as perfectionist often goes hand in hand with a strong need for achievement both at work and in one’s personal life.

Perfectionism can be defined as a tendency for being dissatisfied with anything that is not perceived as perfect or does not meet the person’s extremely high standards. Of course, perfectionism is a subjective state as one person’s idea of perfection might differ significantly from another’s.

Perfectionism, when used in moderation and channelled appropriately, can bring significant value to leadership roles including striving for high, ambitious targets, a high level of determination and conscientiousness in ensuring work is undertaken to a high standard. Perfectionists frequently set the pace for their employees and other stakeholders, setting high expectations and ensuring standards are maintained and continuously improved.

Our research shows that effective leadership is largely about positive stretch – stretching yourself and your team to push the boundaries and achieve in the upper range of your collective strengths and capabilities. This is particularly relevant in today’s uncertain and competitive environment and markets, where organisations are all being challenged to do more with less, to work smarter and optimise the discretionary effort, ideas and morale of their workforce. Achievement-oriented leaders with high expectations of their people often stretch them well beyond their zone of comfort, urging them to strive for exceptional performance and never settle for second best.

However, attention to detail and perfectionism, like any strength, can be overdone and results in all sorts of unintended consequences. When the perfectionist becomes obsessive about the detail and a slave to success, they frequently end up in trouble, both at work and in their personal life. Perfectionism in overdrive doesn’t only significantly raise the probability of leadership derailment, but also has high costs for the emotional and physical wellbeing of the leader and those they interact with.

Some of the more common risks we see in our work with leaders include:

i. Disproportionally high levels of time and energy invested in work activities at the expense of personal activities and goals, including family and personal growth commitments. There is typically little balance between work and personal activities for extreme perfectionists, which can lead to failed marriages/partnerships, little investment in personal relationships and even health problems.

ii. A self-perpetuated plunge into low self-confidence resulting from a perception the person has that “nothing is ever good enough”. They therefore filter out positive feedback and performance data, focusing only on the problems and gaps associated with not only their own performance, but the performance of those they associate with, including their loved ones.

iii. The tendency to spend too long worrying about everything and failing to prioritise things rather than completing tasks to an acceptable standard, then moving on to the next. Because perfectionists are always on the lookout for optimal solutions rather than deploying a decision-making strategy which psychologists call “satisficing”, or doing things to an acceptable threshold, they spend a lot of time and energy mired in the detail and worrying about their decisions and actions.

Team and Organisational:
iv. Unrealistic expectations and standards of their co-workers (including direct reports, peers, and boss) and other key stakeholders. The perfectionist leader tries to maximise results, using a pace-setter style to manage others. However, while this style is occasionally appropriate to raise performance standards, it is often characterised by impatience, lack of empathy, negative stretch (i.e., stretching someone well beyond their comfort zone with insufficient or no support) and harsh judgements about others’ performance and capabilities.

v. A deficit-based work climate where there is little focus on strengths and success. The perfectionist feeds on gaps, limitations and problems, moving the team/organisation onto a destructive path of limiting behaviours and attitudes, including fear, pessimism and mistrust. We refer to this as the “Path of Limitation” and it ultimately leads to a host of dysfunctional outcomes including what psychologists call “learned helplessness” or a feeling of total lack of control over the situation. People keep their heads down in a fight for survival through fear of being chastised or fired for mistakes and shortfalls.

vi. Perfectionists tend to exacerbate a phenomenon known as the “Golem Effect” or a negative self-fulfilling prophecy; the opposite of the performance-enhancing “My Fair Lady” or “Pygmalion Effect”. Because perfectionists put so much pressure on themselves and are rarely happy with their own performance, they project this onto others and expect others’ performance will be inferior and substandard. Any shortfall confirms the perfectionist’s view that the person is inferior or incapable, which in turn reinforces expectations of poor performance. This downward spiral saps energy of people interacting with the perfectionist who stop putting in their best performance as they know they are unlikely to ever earn positive recognition or appreciation from the perfectionist.

There are various ways in which perfectionists can mitigate and reduce these risks including being more self-aware of the impact of their tendencies on their task performance and relations with others; strengthening their agility to ensure they are able to turn the volume of their perfectionism up or down depending on the requirements of the situation; inviting feedback from co-workers and other stakeholders on their impact; giving themselves and others permission to make mistakes (remember, it took around 10,000 failed attempts before Edison invented the light bulb); and bringing in the perspectives and views of co-workers and loved ones who have strengths which complement their own, particularly flexibility, creativity and results focus.

When overdone, perfectionism rarely, if ever, helps leaders engage with their followers positively or creates enduring value for their organisation. Admittedly, it can help in certain technical roles and in ensuring a leader maintains a high level of functional expertise, but there are very few examples I can think of where it has helped a leader achieve greatness among followers. The exception that springs to mind is the late Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder and CEO, although most of us would agree that he was not an exemplar of great people leadership, often undermining, berating and negatively stretching his staff in the pursuit of perfection.