Want To Be an Effective Leader? Recover from Perfectionism

Written by on December 10, 2015

“[Perfectionism] constricts people just when the fast-moving world requires more flexibility and comfort with ambiguity than ever. It turns people into success slaves.” Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large, Psychology Today

Openness to coaching – the willingness to accept, and act on, help – is essential to the success of any engagement. While the majority of executives are ready and eager, there is one barrier that can get in the way of results: perfectionism. How is the striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high standards a burden that is carried by both leaders and teams?

Perfectionists Aren’t Perfect

While it seems like a positive trait in an executive – someone who pushes him or herself and others to achieve great results, someone who doesn’t settle for less than the best – perfectionism can be draining on leaders and on their subordinates.

According to a study conducted by Dr. Robert Hurley, author of Decision to Trust: for perfectionist executives, “the desire to be perfect drives them to over-control people and events and prevents them from engaging in critical leadership behaviors, such as empowering, trusting, inspiring, and challenging others.”

This can lead them to spend all day working on tasks their subordinates should rightly be handling, simply because they need to do it “right.” Or, they fear ceding control: “What if things don’t turn out how I want?”

These executives and leaders spend too much time working in their business at a tactical level – and fail to work on their business as a strategic leader. The result: the organization works one or two levels lower than it should.

Recovering Perfectionists

I help a number of my clients to become “recovering perfectionists.” As senior executive Paul Laudicina says in the Wall Street Journal: “It’s like being an alcoholic. You’re never cured of being a perfectionist. You’re basically just in remission.”

So what does “remission” look like? It’s helping perfectionist executives think these questions through:

  • What is the risk if everything is not being absolutely perfect?
  • How much organizational energy is tied up in getting to that perfect state?
  • What is the real cost and value of getting to “perfection.”

Think about it this way: if a task or project were completed 95% (according to their metric), how much does it cost to get to the extra 5%? The reality is – given the fast-paced business world and constant budget pressures – 95% is good enough. And 100% can be far too costly in terms of resources, time, and energy.

Hiring People From the Neck Down

Recovering as a perfectionist also requires realizing that not every task has to be done exactly the way leaders would do it. When they tell their people the outcome and prescribe the methods by which they must reach it, what executives are saying is, “I hired you from the neck down. All I want is your arms and legs. Brains need not apply.” That’s another reason organizations work a level or two below where they should.

Dr. Dan Barrow is a renowned neurosurgeon – a field in which it makes sense that everything would have to be done exactly the same way. Yet Dr. Barrow says that “100% adherence to the supervisor’s procedure is not necessary” because “different approaches can yield successful outcomes.”

If it’s true in such an exacting, precise profession, it applies more than readily to the business world. There are multiple routes to the same goal. Perfectionism bars leaders from seeing that – and keeps their people from growing, developing, and meeting objectives.

In a business environment that demands flexibility and adaptability, perfectionism is a trait that can limit your ability to lead and to succeed. When is good enough good enough? And when should you let go and let others take control? These are difficult questions – but essential for the recovering perfectionist.