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7 ways to overcome perfectionist tendencies

Hi, I’m Suzi and I’m a recovering perfectionist.

Early on in life, I attributed any top grades and stellar performance appraisals I received to my perfectionism. I wore this Perfectionism badge with honour. I used to think that being a perfectionist would be a valuable trait for me as a leader too. High standards, striving for the best, a drive for flawlessness – all these things should lead to positive results and big wins shouldn’t they?

Nope.

In fact, my perfectionism was counterproductive. This leadership gremlin left me with a nagging sense of failure, even when I’d busted my guts and people were congratulating me. I would focus only on what I hadn’t achieved, instead of acknowledging progress and my successes.

I learnt the hard way that perfectionism wreaks havoc on your team members as you write and rewrite (and rewrite again) their work. It alienates and belittles people and you’ll get the nickname “micromanager” quicker than you can say Jack Robinson.

I discovered after countless ‘missed boats’ that it’s paralysing and leads to slow decision making. The anxiety and time I wasted over-analysing whether what I’d produced was good enough led me to hesitate – and usually miss the window of opportunity altogether.

And it sucks the fun out of pretty much everything.

The trouble with this leadership derailer is that like I did, you think it’s probably served you to some extent in your life previously. You might even think it’s helped you get ahead.

But perfectionism can be your, and your team’s, worst enemy.

How can you tell if you’re a perfectionist? Complete this quiz to find out:

  1. You constantly worry about mistakes and you’re unable to enjoy your wins.
  2. You spend too much time regretting past stuff ups, or things which didn’t turn out as you’d anticipated.
  3. You’re intensely competitive and can’t abide doing a ‘poorer job’ than others.
  4. You want things done “just right” – or not at all.
  5. You demand perfection from other people and are unforgiving when people make a mistake.
  6. You rarely ask for help because you think others will see this as a flaw or a weakness.
  7. You persist at a task long after other people have quit. Not always a bad thing, but this can fall into the ‘flogging a dead horse’ territory.
  8. You have an overwhelming desire to correct other people when they’re wrong.
  9. You’re highly aware of other peoples’ demands and expectations.
  10. You’re super self-conscious about making mistakes in front of other people.

If you answered ‘Yes’ to 7 or more, you are a serious perfectionist. A score between 4-6 means you’re probably a perfectionist from time to time. A score between 0-4 means you have achieved a good balance and have any perfectionist tendencies well in check.

Imagine the freedom of kicking perfectionism to the curb, of no longer pursuing the unattainable perfect outcome from yourself or your team.

Sounds like a relief doesn’t it? Well, I’ve got good news for you. You can overcome perfectionism.

Here are seven ways to start recovering:

  1. Adopt the phrase “done is better than perfect” as your daily mantra. Do what I did – write it down on a post-it and shove it right in front of your face on your desk. Heck, have it as your screensaver if you have to.
  2. Notice the situations when you find yourself moving into perfectionism territory. Look for patterns. What are your watch-out zones for perfectionism? Where do you need to be extra vigilant for your perfectionistic streak? For me it was with new or certain clients I felt I had to impress or doing something for the first time, like launching my online leadership programme for emerging leaders. Get to understand what’s behind your perfectionism and where it’s come from.
  3. Focus on the negative impacts of your perfectionism, especially when it comes to your team. Seth Godin says it well: “For surface shine, 80% might be more than enough. After that, the tweaking is for us, not those we seek to serve.
  4. Get clear upfront with others about your expectations. Be specific about what success looks like before the task is delegated. Spending a bit more time at the beginning will save you and your team redoing and redoing…and redoing the work.
  5. Balance perfection with action. Beware of analysis paralysis – try and reduce your need for data and your need to be right all the time slightly each week until you reach a more reasonable balance between thinking and action.
  6. Give yourself a little coaching session. When I notice myself being a perfectionist, I stop and give myself a pep talk. I ask myself the following:
    1. Are my thoughts factual, or are they just my interpretations? Sometimes I let my mind go down ridiculous rabbit warrens without sense checking my assumptions. So ask, “Am I jumping to negative conclusions before I have the facts? What proof do I have for this? What can I say that counters this mental model?”
    2. What’s the worst thing that could happen? How likely is that to happen? And if it does, what can I do to rectify it? Can I fix it? Then just do that!
    3. What is an alternative set of “good-enough” actions I can take here?
  7. Force yourself to have a deadline and get it out in that time no matter what. Only spend a predetermined time on the task.  This is sublimely uncomfortable for perfectionists, but I’ve found, especially when it comes to writing, this stops perfectionism in its tracks. Reward yourself for speed and action not ‘correctness.’ The more you do this, the easier it gets.

Leadership is sooo much more enjoyable without the millstone of perfectionism around your neck. So do you and your team a favour – kick perfectionism to the curb, like I’m learning to do!

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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