In the past six months, I’ve encountered destructive perfectionistic statements multiple times. These sentiments come from CEOs, Vice Presidents and Presidents of corporations responsible for P&Ls ranging $5 million in revenue to $600 million. Perfectionism is fairly common, estimated at 30% among the general population. As a disclaimer, I am not a psychologist by training, so this is my take on the topic, from a lay person’s point of view.
Do any of these sound like you?
- “If I commit to this [Vistage] group, I need to make every meeting, or I won’t be living up to my commitment.” (If I can’t do it perfectly it’s not worth doing. I wouldn’t get the full value, and I don’t want to spend money on something I won’t use).
- “I don’t want anyone to know I’m spending time to develop myself.” (I should be seen as perfect and omniscient by the people I work with).
- “I have only one hour each week truly to myself. During that time, I go jogging at the beach and listen to music. All the rest of the time is for my work and my family.” (I’m over-extending myself to be the perfect partner, parent and boss).
- “I can’t make the commitment right now because I’m too busy. I hope it will be better in the future.” (I’m delusional about living in a perfect future where I am less busy than I am now.)
These conversations were with hard-working, “busy” executives in Southern California who state that they want to grow both their leadership and grow their business.
Unfortunately, their stated interest in growth reminds me of people who say they want to eat healthy and exercise more often, but never do.
These leaders want to grow, but are unwilling to dedicate time, money and energy to growing their leadership and their business. They fail to recognize the negative impact of their perfectionism on their colleagues, teams, and even bosses at work. Some believe that if they step away from their duties for even one work day a month, the business will suffer and un-named “others” will question their commitment.
How Perfectionist Leaders Hold Back Companies and Teams
In my opinion, the perfectionistic boss is training the team towards learned helplessness– that it is better to sit back and let the boss take care of the situation, since the team’s solution will never be good enough.
In companies where the boss owns the business, the company is a less financially valuable organization, because it is overly dependent on one individual. While it’s good to have high standards, rigidly applying impossibly high standards stifles initiative, destroys value and hinders organizational growth.
In Leadership, Perfectionism is Common
Personally, I’ve never thought of myself as a perfectionist. However, I’ve been made aware of how my somewhat limited perfectionism is holding me back. I’ve made some changes, such as working with a career coach and putting a sign on my desk that faces me and states: “Whose job are you doing now?” Still, I know there is much more I can do on this front.
Perfectionism in leaders isn’t rare. Being reluctant to make an “imperfect” commitment is a recurring theme among the highly-accomplished leaders who I talk with. The hard-driving approach and intensity that propelled much of their success no longer serves them well as their roles and companies mature. This doesn’t mean all of us are hard-core perfectionists, but it does mean many of us have a blind spot that we might want to examine.
One of my friends mentioned that her father is a lifelong perfectionist and won’t ever be able to change. I’m sure that’s true for the hard-core set, but I believe that many leaders who have some perfectionist qualities aren’t making the connection with how it may be hurting them.
Recognizing your perfectionist tendencies is the first step. Being open to joining other leaders in a peer group, such as Vistage, will help you develop some new approaches and act on solutions. Those leaders who are open to change will find more time for themselves and build better work relationships.
So, are you ready to give up some perfectionism? Or are you too busy?