Pitfalls of Perfectionism
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Employees generally agree that leaders with a passion for excellence, quality and accomplishment benefit their organizations. These qualities place leaders at the top of their fields. No one faults managers who give their all and make sacrifices, but too much of a good thing can also pose problems.

Perfectionistic leaders may be as damaging as those who embrace mediocrity. Perfectionists often obsess over process, commonly insisting that tasks be completed their way. Often accompanying perfectionism is obsessive-compulsive behavior, with leaders demanding adherence to narrow windows of acceptable norms. While ostensibly committed to doing what’s best, perfectionists have tightly controlled definitions of what best means.

Perfectionistic leaders frustrate their people, burden them with extreme expectations and cause resentment. A leader’s desire to do the right thing leads to a rigidly controlled, distrusting and unaccepting culture that smothers people into submission. Fortunately, there are ways to understand and deal with perfectionism while maintaining excellence and productivity.

Do You Have Perfectionistic Tendencies?

Perfectionists believe they have a keen mind for what works (and what doesn’t). They assess optimal methods and outcomes, endeavoring to implement them—a fine goal, as long as leaders avoid obsession.

Obsessions take leaders down ineffective paths, where they’re blinded into believing that effectiveness is possible only when absolute perfection is achieved. The cycle then escalates: The more leaders focus on efficacy, the greater their need for perfection.

Perfectionists strive for excellence and virtue in everything they do, notes psychotherapist and leadership consultant Beatrice Chestnut, PhD, in The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace (Post Hill Press, 2017). Their quest, however, manifests as a noticeable compulsion and calculated culture that alienates many employees. Though perfection is truly unattainable, perfectionistic leaders remain unconvinced.

Perfectionism’s Pros and Cons

Leaders who strive for excellence can lay strong foundations for their organizations. They:

  • Aim for the highest standards, through ethical conduct and honorable motives
  • Are dedicated to the organization’s mission
  • Exude reliability, honesty, integrity, diligence and perseverance
  • Honor organizational policies, rules and practices
  • Are detail-oriented
  • Have few ego issues, seeking every opportunity to excel
  • Are terrific teachers

But when taken to extremes, these traits create dissent, employee dissatisfaction and turnover. When leaders prioritize outcomes over people, employee morale and a leader’s legacy suffer. On the negative end of the spectrum, perfectionistic leaders:

  • Hold unrealistic expectations of excellence
  • Engage in black-and-white thinking
  • Believe their way is the best way—in short, the only way
  • Criticize those who disagree with their assessments and solutions
  • Assume others cannot complete work as effectively as they can
  • Take on too much work, without delegating, believing others will achieve lesser results
  • Make goals seem more critical than necessary
  • Often micromanage
  • Can be tough to please
  • Pressure themselves into doing better and continually need more from their people
  • Are so focused on methods and results that they fail to notice (or deal with) their detrimental effects on employees
  • Are unwilling to develop other leaders or successors, believing no one can lead the organization or replace them

Perfection, as desirable as it may seem, is deceptively dangerous.

Signs and Symptoms

Perfectionistic leaders exhibit widely observable behavioral patterns. They have a precise manner, with a keen attention to detail, punctuality, specificity and process. Tunnel vision causes them to adhere strongly to established policies and procedures. They show displeasure with those whose priorities differ, and they instruct their people to follow “the plan” with compulsively frequent reminders and criticisms.

Perfectionists emphasize the value of hard work, obsess over details, quickly highlight errors and believe mistakes are catastrophic. Perfectionistic leaders hover over employees, and their attempts to teach or make suggestions are largely firm or critical. Their language and tone convey distrust in others. When these leaders receive negative feedback, they become judgmental, biased and self-righteous.

Breaking the Habit

Excellence is attainable, so learn to differentiate it from perfection. Success is earned by giving your best and making the most practical choices. Mistakes and oversights are common, and there are always creative ways to work around, mitigate and minimize their impact. The world will never run on perfection, nor will any conscientious leader.

Perfectionistic leaders must recognize how their criticisms affect people and their work. Take the time to gauge morale and productivity levels. Work with a trusted colleague, mentor or coach to improve how you offer feedback and suggestions.

Leaders who are determined to conquer their perfectionistic tendencies will make the greatest strides, Dr. Chestnut explains. Changing one’s mindset is a process that requires transparency and humility. Diligent leaders can learn to adopt proper perspectives.

Reformed perfectionists learn how to be open to other ideas, agree to be teachable and recognize that no one has all the answers. The most successful leaders surround themselves with smart, innovative people who bring great ideas to the table.

Working for a Perfectionistic Leader

If you report to a perfectionist, resist the urge to express resentment, defiance or disrespect. Rebelliousness goads perfectionists into reacting. However, submissiveness is not the answer.

Perfectionistic leaders value unity, quality and integrity, knowing it’s key to attaining excellence. They want to be understood and have their core values appreciated. Demonstrate your commitment to these values. While you may disagree on specific methods, work toward conveying your opinions and finding workable compromises, Dr. Chestnut advises.

Emphasize common goals and discuss differences in rational, calm and respectful ways. Help your boss see alternative paths to goals. Work methodically, and outline pros and cons to discover why your leader prefers one approach to another. Be willing to critique your own ideas, as well.

Find ways to express appreciation for your boss’s willingness to solve problems and make decisions jointly. Be accountable and willing to apologize for mistakes or delays. Offer additional ideas and honest feedback in a positive manner.

When perfectionistic leaders accept alternate strategies, their grip on black-and-white thinking may loosen. They may come to realize that success doesn’t require perfection or a breakneck work pace. As they learn that processes benefit from some give-and-take, their leadership style may evolve.

Perfectionism’s negative tendencies outweigh the positives when taken to extremes. Consider retaining an experienced executive coach if you’re struggling with a perfectionistic personality. Coaching encourages collaborative, reasonable behaviors that allow you to accomplish noble goals.

Feel free to pass this newsletter on to friends and acquaintances should you think they might benefit from it.

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Moty Koppes is a certified master coach providing you with personal development, life coaching, relationship coaching, communication skills, personal power, life balance, career coaching, productivity enhancement, executive coaching and stress reduction in Newport Beach, Orange County, Southern California.