I was recently working with one of my executive clients on the area of perfectionism. She talked about the standards she places on herself; feeling inadequate if she makes one mistake, mulling over it for days as the uneasiness builds. This is an area I know all too well. I’ve struggled with perfectionism throughout my life, and have often wasted a great deal of time and energy striving to create the perfect business plan, the perfect presentation, or even the perfect gourmet dinner for friends. The list goes on!
So why do so many high-achieving, successful leaders beat themselves up over small, inconsequential mistakes? Why are we striving so hard to be perfect?
The truth is, people who are challenged by perfectionism usually don’t think they’re perfect. More often than not, they fear what people will think if they find out how imperfect they really are. Many perfectionists struggle with living up to their own internal standards and want to be accepted and appreciated by others.
There are two types of perfectionists: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionists are more goal-oriented and conscientious, and adjust well within groups. This type of perfectionist scores high on leadership abilities and tends to be the kind of person who reaches for attainable goals and continuously seeks self-improvement. Adaptive perfectionism tends to be self-oriented; meaning, they adhere to strict standards while maintaining strong motivation to attain perfection. By contrast, maladaptive perfectionists tend to fear criticism, are obsessive over order, and seek total admiration. These perfectionists as leaders tend to be micromanaging, emphasize hard work over results, and struggle with building and maintaining positive relationships with others. The impact can be de-motivated employees, underdeveloped staff, and high turnover.
Perfectionism can serve you well if it’s healthy and oriented toward self-improvement and strong goal orientation. And it’s important to be aware of when you are being self-critical and irrational. As I’ve developed as a person and leader, I like to reframe perfectionism in a more healthy way. Rather than strive to be perfect, I now strive to be excellent.
Here are eight strategies for being a “healthy” perfectionist:
Get out of your office. Schedule at least three, fifteen-minute blocks of time a day to get out of your office and connect with people or to go outdoors. Giving your brain a break brings clarity and focus, and often gives you the mental space you need to reframe your perfectionism tendencies.
Delegate and trust. Perfectionists often feel they will be seen as successful leaders if they can do it all. The opposite is actually true. A good leader is able to delegate some tasks and projects and focus on the important, high-leverage areas.
Develop employees. The more time you take to develop your employees, the more opportunities you will have to delegate work to them and free up your time for the most important strategic projects.
Pare down your to do list. At the end of each day, pick one or two important tasks or projects that are essential to complete the next day. Instead of focusing on a long “to do” list, start your day by focusing on your two important tasks. Determine that your day will be a success if you complete these items. Many perfectionists are action oriented and feel successful by checking things off a list. It’s better to accomplish the important tasks rather than just any task.
Focus on being, not just doing. Perfectionists usually focus on accomplishments and tend to neglect downtime. Designate downtime every day where you shut off everything and leave the demands behind.
Celebrate mistakes. We are all human. When you make a mistake, celebrate and learn from it. Better yet, tell your staff about your mistake. They will actually have more respect for you for admitting you are not perfect.
Strive for excellent instead of perfect. We waste so much time and energy trying to ensure every detail is perfect. Often what you think is only “good” work is seen as far more superior in others’ eyes. Strive for excellence, and accept that you can be more productive by not being perfect.
Institute “pause” moments. Whether it’s meditation or just taking ten minutes a day to take a breath and quiet your mind, pausing throughout the day to regroup can be very empowering. This has made a huge difference in my life. I am calmer and more focused, and have reduced my anxiety significantly around what needs to get done. Even though I’m not perfect at slowing down, pausing throughout the day to be present in the moment makes me feel more in control.
Awareness is the first step toward reducing anxiety around perfectionism. Start noticing the irrational thoughts going through your head (i.e., I’ll get fired if this report is not perfect) and bring yourself back to reality.
I’d love to hear from you: What strategies have you used to keep your perfectionism in check? Share your suggestions in the comments section below.