Perfectionism vs People Leading: Is It Good Or Bad For Your Career?

For some, being a perfectionist is seen as a good thing. For others, it’s a bad trait to have. We all have some understanding of what it means to be a perfectionist, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. So today we’re chatting about what perfectionism actually means, based on the research of Human Synergistics, which has been going on for around 40 years.

Perfectionism is on our radar because we’re seeing a lot of it when it comes to people management and the impact it has on those with a tendency to strive for perfection and their ability to manage others. 

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How do you define perfectionism?

There's too much to enjoy in life and I (Michelle) think that goes to the heart of what perfectionism does to you. It doesn't allow you to get the richness and the variety of life because you're too focused on trying to be perfect.

Interestingly enough, there’s a high correlation between anxiety and coronary heart disease with people who are driven to be perfect all the time.

The perfectionistic style can be characterised by never wanting to make a mistake, and setting unrealistic goals as a result.

Some people think, “I just want to do the best and be the best." It's not about that, it's not about attaining good results, it's about attaining the perfect answer or the perfect result.

Lead people, not tasks

In terms of people management, those who have a tendency to be ‘perfect’ are severely restricted. If you are always looking for the perfect answer you're never going to find it in someone else. That's what we’re finding; managers who have this perfectionist tendency usually take on more and more work because, "nobody can do it as well as I could."

They then find themselves going down the rabbit holes when really they should be lifting themselves up. And so they become ineffective; their key focus is on a task as opposed to people. Something I (Jan) heard in a triad session fits perfectly with this: "Task is short term focus. People is long term focus."

It seems the main fear for perfectionists is failure; the fear of not looking good. They create huge amounts of stress for themselves because of it, which ironically, hinders opportunities for success.

If there's a real drive not to fail at something you're never going to try. You're never going to step out of the box and do things different, or look at things in a different way. So you’re not going to get your creative juices flowing, and we know being creative and curious leads to fantastic results.

Instead, perfectionists are constantly asking themselves, "What must I do to become perfect?" This unconsciously drives their behaviour, which leads to further stress because they never feel like they achieve perfection. So there's always an underlying anxiety because they’re striving and not arriving. They think in terms of absolutes, “I must” and “I don't have a choice”. 

Characteristic checklist

It’s not hard to spot a perfectionist. We’ve come up with a checklist of 10 key characteristics - see how many you tick off:

  1. Do you feel driven to prove yourself?
  2. Do you rarely feel a true sense of accomplishment - when you get something done do you physically feel it in your gut, head and heart that you've accomplished it?
  3. Do you frequently become irritated with what you perceive as incompetencies of others?
  4. Do you keep your dealings with others strictly on a professional level? i.e Do you dislike emotions?
  5. Do you prefer not to do something if you can't do it perfectly?
  6. Are you excessively concerned with avoiding mistakes?
  7. Are you preoccupied with detail that distorts perspective and judgement?
  8. Do you have a tendency to place excessive demands on yourself and other people?
  9. Do you have a tendency to attach your self worth to the accomplishment of a task?
  10. Is nothing ever good enough? 

All of these characteristics create a volatile environment, where you strive to look good instead of creating an environment of sustainability and doing good.

The positives of perfection

Research shows there is a correlation between your performance and this style of behaviour. Your performance will be volatile, which will affect your ability to resolve conflict. You’ll also be competitive, constantly trying to be better, faster, quicker, and smarter than anybody else in the room. 

That kind of thinking will reduce your ability to share information and have a fruitful collaborative working relationship with people because you’ll always be competing. As a result, you’ll likely be more reactive as opposed to proactive and interactive.

Having said that, there is a positive correlation between salary and perfectionist behaviour, because some people really consider it to be a good thing, especially if you're managing someone who’s a doer, like a technician or a researcher.

Work on yourself and your relationships

So how can you change this behaviour? First of all you have to recognise that you do have it. If you have a degree of wanting to attain a good result, don't mistake that for perfectionism because perfectionism is always the absolute best result, it's not ‘the best that I can do given the circumstances or resources’.

And remember, the main goal for a perfectionist is not wanting to make a mistake. If you are successful you are going to achieve the goal, rather than just focusing on not making a mistake .

Secondly, you need to be able to understand the origin of your perfectionism and develop an awareness around what you think it gives you and what the benefits are.

The other thing you can do is catch yourself when you use the words "should", "would” and "must" in your speech. You can ask other people, like your partner, to check in and tell you when you’re using those words.

Another thing you can change is your perception that your work is your worth. It’s not. You are worthy because you are here. Circumstances will change, standards will change, and expectations of people will change.

Following on from that, you can learn to alter your standards. Perfectionists tend to spend an excessive amount of time in the detail that doesn't really yield. It’s also important not be as hard on yourself and less demanding of others.

One way you can catch yourself is your self talk. The quality of your self talk is absolutely going to determine the quality and effectiveness of your behaviours, so we recommend talking to yourself like you would a 12 year old son or daughter, affirming and clear.

Lastly, you can devote time to developing better relationships at work. If you're a people leader, think about the way respond to your team and experiment with it.

If you really want to improve your performance as a people leader, you should learn to delegate. It demonstrates that you trust your team, that you have respect, and gives you a chance to connect. In turn, people will feel able to report to you, to grow and to develop themselves, which is your job as a people leader.

Separating satisfaction from perfection

Bearing all of that in mind, here’s an activity you can try so you can learn to separate satisfaction from perfection.

Write down a list of activities you do in your daily life. It could be gardening, swimming, reading, etc. Now, rate them from 1-100 according to the satisfaction you feel when the activity is completed. Then score each of them again from 1-100 according to how well you do them.

Is there a correlation? Do you derive the most satisfaction doing a particular thing that you're not absolutely the best at?

If you can alter your behaviour and learn to be more flexible in your strive for perfection, you can lead a more balanced life. You’ll have more time for fun and relaxation, and who doesn’t want that?

Learning to accept failure and learn from it will also serve you well. ‘Falling forward’ means you’ll get a sense of relief from recognising that no one ever is, or will ever be, perfect. We're imperfectly perfect. 

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