10 Good Reasons to Curb Your Perfectionism

During April, Bonnie will be the closing speaker for the Catalyst Awards Conference in New York and also speaking for the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association in California. In May you can also see her at the California Women's Conference.

Over the two decades that I have coached individual women executives, researched women's leadership and facilitated development programs for high potential women, I have seen one thing that seems to derail women in the workplace significantly more than it does men: perfectionism. To be clear, I am not saying male leaders are never perfectionists, nor do I claim that women always are, but there is a kind of perfectionism that seems to consistently play out differently for women than men -- and often undermines their ability to lead.

Let me take a step back a bit to say that perfectionism isn't always a negative trait. There are times when perfectionism is critical for success. I'd like to think, for example, that people who handle billion dollar transactions or run nuclear power plants exhibit a great deal of perfectionism. A modicum of perfectionism may be helpful for launching a new product or planning a conference for senior global executives. But I'm not talking about being good at your job or applying careful attention to details. Perfectionism becomes debilitating when it permeates every fiber of your being.

I don't know if anyone has done a study of whether women actually fall victim to excessive perfectionism more than men, but I do wonder if our brains are wired in a way that leans toward perfectionism. Research shows that women, on average, remember more detail and also experience emotions more intensely than men do. Taken together with our female socialization to nurture others, these factors could cause us to try to fix everything, take care of everyone and worry about every outcome. As women, we also experience guilt more intensely and feel a sense of failure when we don't get it "right."

Whatever the reason, I find that a certain percentage of women in business everywhere I go suffer from an excess of perfectionism. I watch my sisters struggle in part because they really can't see anything wrong with trying to do everything right. Recently, while speaking for a group of women leaders, I touched on this topic and received a number of requests to provide my top 10 list of the "Perils of Perfectionism" in an article that could be shared with others.

So, if perfectionism is driving you (or someone you know) to exhaustion, use this list as a motivator. Pin it up over your desk, in your car, on your mobile device... anywhere it can remind you of what's wrong about doing everything right.


1. Drives away good people. In an interview for my last book, Condoleezza Rice told me how she struggled with her own perfectionist tendencies: "That was my epiphany about leading better: you'll drive yourself crazy trying to do everything... and you'll drive talented people away." She learned the hard way that you can't micro-manage your most gifted contributors. If you do, they won't stick around.

2. Causes pain to those you manage. Even if they don't quit working for you, your perfectionism can cause others on your team to put in unnecessary hours, suffer from constant criticism and actually stop taking initiative. Perfectionism isn't even always about getting it "right;" it often becomes about doing it your way. The team will stop thinking for themselves. They will likely spend more time than they should on lower priorities in an effort to avoid your criticism.

3. Blocks promotability. One woman I was coaching had actually requested to undo a promotion she had earned. When I gave her a leadership assessment and she realized her perfectionist scores benchmarked in the 95th percentile, we began to unpack what that burden was doing to her life. She realized she couldn't take on bigger challenges because she was struggling to be the perfect mother, wife, daughter, etc., in addition to doing everything perfectly at work. Stepping back, she committed to practice adjusting her standards and setting specific priorities. As a result, she was able to begin moving forward in her career again. This may sound extreme, but I have met with hundreds of women who feel completely overwhelmed with their own high expectations for every aspect of life and therefore feel they cannot take on more senior leadership roles.

4. Prevents risk-taking. When someone feels they have to get everything right all the time, how can they accept a new role in a division or industry where they have never worked? A perfectionist would shrink from key development opportunities such as a stretch assignment or a posting in a foreign country -- just for fear that they won't have every possible answer for every possible situation.

5. Stops people from applying for new jobs. An often-quoted Catalyst study found that women rarely applied for jobs if they didn't have all or most of the qualifications listed, whereas men would frequently apply even if they only had a fraction of the requirements.

6. Impedes innovation. Needing to get everything right makes it difficult to test out new ideas, experiment and learn from failure. I have been able to compete in Olympic sports, work in the White House, start my own business and write numerous books precisely because I am not a perfectionist. I have had to make mistakes, fall on my face and ask for help...over and over again.

7. Makes work-life balance impossible. If your home has to be perfectly clean, kids perfectly dressed, meals perfectly cooked AND your desk must be clean, inbox empty, etc... your day will never end. Perhaps this is the area that hits women hardest when they internalize every possible external expectation -- and experience massive guilt for anything out of place or undone both at work and at home. Try this tip: Prioritize work commitments and personal commitments separately. When you know what is most important at work and most important at home, the choices become clearer.

8. Crowds out networking. So many of the women we coach have to learn to lift up their heads from task completion to look around, build relationships and study their business beyond their own purview. We, as women, tend to criticize men for golfing, drinking together or taking long lunches while we slave away at our desks. Networking is crucial for building trust, strengthening teams and preparing yourself for the next levels of your career.

9. Makes you seem overly tactical. When everyone around you sees how great you are at fixing all the little details they will keep on giving you those kinds of little responsibilities. No one will think you can see the big picture or set priorities when you seem focused on the minutia. Being able to let go of your perfectionist tendencies may help you to win more strategic projects.

10. Takes the focus off the most important things. Perhaps we can sum up all the problems of perfectionism with this one thing: priorities. Letting perfectionism take over everything, everywhere in your life, shows a severe lack of focus and discernment. In a world of endless chores and challenges, your absolute best work should be targeted on the most significant and important elements of your life... not on every little thing competing for your energy. Make the most important thing the most important thing. Get the right things right.



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