Coach’s Corner Blog

The Perils of Perfectionism and 6 Things To Do About It

August 17, 2014 by Leave a Comment

Perfectly Placed

A recent post by Michael Hyatt on his website – Intentional Leadership – entitled The Paradigm Shift That Helped Me Defeat Perfectionism Once and for All really caught my eye. I have studied the impacts of perfectionism on leadership for many years with my clients and his experience with the topic was very insightful.

Michael moved from a career in publishing to becoming a thought leader in leadership. He realized that the very deliberate process of bringing a book to market requires the coordination of editors, proofers, designers, printers, marketers, publicists, and salespeople.

When you consider creating 10,000 or 1 million copies of a book, all that due diligence makes sense. In the world of Internet marketing and thought leadership, however, a very deliberate approach can be too time-consuming.

When he spoke of the paradigm shift, he was talking about how to shift his production methods to fit the Internet world. Here are the three things he suggested that can help you “break free from the Perfection Trap”:

  1. Change your perspective. Reframe your approach to projects, and remember you can adapt and update things as needed online.
  2. Narrow your focus. Don’t try to do too much. Do fewer things well and avoid burnout.
  3. Don’t confuse perfection with excellence. Maintain high standards but don’t seek the unattainable goal of perfection.

Several years ago I was asked to provide coaching to a group of very high level technical influencers in an organization. One of the assessments I used showed that each of these three fellows had the exact same profile out of the more than 20 different possible profiles. That’s more than a coincidence.

It turns out that each of these fellows demonstrated a very high degree of focus on getting tasks done with a significant focus on process as well. There is a natural tension between those two areas of focus and this fits the more common psychological profile of perfectionism.

I did some research on that topic and found an excellent book, Too Perfect: When Being In Control Gets Out of Control  by Allan Mallinger and Jeannette DeWyze. Once my eyes were opened to this, I began to see more and more perfectionists in the leaders I served.

Let’s discuss where this profile, with its high needs for control comes from and the fears that feed it:

Fear of “Being Found Out” (Too Perfect, p.3):

Maybe I’m not the expert, and don’t have all the answers. Perhaps others who get to really know me will “find out”.

  • Like in the Wizard of Oz – “Ignore that man behind the curtain!”
  • Fears of errors or making a wrong decision or move
  • A need to know and follow the rules
  • A need for order or firmly established routines
  • An inclination to worry, rumination and doubt

Fear of Trusting:

To protect themselves against the vulnerability of trusting, they are wary, doubting others motives, honesty and reliability.

  • Emotional guardedness
  • A need to be above criticism – moral, professional, or personal

Fear of Dependency:

If you are dependent, you sacrifice some autonomy – some loss of control over your life.

  • A heightened tendency to being pressured or controlled by others
  • Cautiousness

If these descriptors resonate with you either about yourself or someone you lead, do not despair. There is much about many perfectionistic tendencies that have very beneficial outcomes in the business world. But like everything in life, a strength carried to an extreme can be a vice.

The ultimate irony – and tragedy – of perfectionism is that it simply doesn’t work. It’s supposed to earn you rave reviews and exempt you from criticism. Instead, it damages your work and your relationships and puts you under an unrelenting pressure.

Perfectionists often have a certain anxiousness about their encounters with others. This results in an impression of being cool and aloof and is often mistaken for conceit.

If you’ve concluded that your perfectionism is hurting you, you can make changes. Here are a few thoughts about how to not allow perfectionism to rule you:

  1. Remind yourself that no one and nothing can be 100% dependable.
  2. Aim for average. Under-promise and over-deliver (but not too much).
  3. Don’t get tripped up by your tendency to think in terms of extremes. Instead of Either / Or as a way to analyze everything – find the And in the middle.
  4. Try to be conscious of the fact that your guarded behavior is likely to cause the very rejection, isolation and unloved feelings you fear.
  5. It takes determination and patience to become less guarded. Avoid Worry, Rumination and Doubt.
  6. Use “Thought Stopping” (Too Perfect, p.140) – When you recognize the negative thoughts, think of how it makes you feel – painful, anxious, angry or uncomfortable, not relief or satisfaction, distracting you from more positive, constructive thoughts. Pull on a rubber band on your wrist and say “STOP” aloud. Inhale deeply, and relax. Wait 15 seconds and repeat, “Worrying won’t help”. Do this until you move to something more productive.

I do hope this post will give you some insight about this important topic. I look forward to your thoughts. Make sure you leave a comment below to share what you learned and how you’re going to use it.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Watson / CC

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