We meet many perfectionists in the course of our work. A lot of these are in managerial and leadership positions, which is of course no surprise as perfectionism often goes hand in hand with a strong need for achievement both at work and in one’s personal life.
Perfectionism can be defined as a tendency for being dissatisfied with anything that is not perceived as perfect or does not meet the person’s extremely high standards. Of course, perfectionism is a subjective state as one person’s idea of perfection might differ significantly from another’s. The costs of being a perfectionist are typically very high, not just to the leader personally, but also for their team and/or organisation.
Some of the typical risks we see in our work with leaders include:
- Disproportionally high levels of time and energy invested in work activities at the expense of personal activities and goals, including family and personal growth commitments. There is typically little balance between work and personal activities for extreme perfectionists, which can lead to failed marriages/partnerships, little investment in personal relationships and even health problems.
- A self-perpetuated plunge into low self-confidence resulting from a perception the person has that “nothing is ever good enough”. They therefore filter out positive feedback and performance data, focusing only on the problems and gaps associated with not only their own performance, but the performance of those they associate with, including their loved ones.
- The tendency to spend too long worrying about everything and failing to prioritise things rather than completing tasks to an acceptable standard, then moving on to the next. Because perfectionists are always on the lookout for optimal solutions rather than deploying a decision-making strategy which psychologists call “satisficing”, or doing things to an acceptable threshold, they spend a lot of time and energy worrying about their decisions and actions.
Team and Organisational:
- Unrealistic expectations and standards of their co-workers (including direct reports, peers, and boss) and other key stakeholders. The perfectionist leader tries to maximise results, using a pace-setter style to manage others. However, while this style is occasionally appropriate to raise performance standards, it is often characterised by impatience, lack of empathy, negative stretch (i.e., stretching someone well beyond their comfort zone with insufficient or no support) and harsh judgements about others’ performance and capabilities.
- A deficit-based work climate where there is little focus on strengths and success. The perfectionist feeds on gaps, limitations and problems, moving the team/organisation onto a destructive path of limiting behaviours and attitudes, including fear, pessimism and mistrust. We refer to this as the “Path of Limitation” and it ultimately leads to a host of dysfunctional outcomes including what psychologists call “learned helplessness” or a feeling of total lack of control over the situation. People keep their heads down in a fight for survival through fear of being chastised or fired for mistakes and shortfalls.
- Perfectionists tend to exacerbate a phenomenon known as the “Golem Effect” or a negative self-fulfilling prophecy; the opposite of the performance-enhancing “My Fair Lady” or “Pygmalion Effect”. Because perfectionists put so much pressure on themselves and are rarely happy with their own performance, they project this onto others and expect others’ performance will be inferior and substandard. Any shortfall confirms the perfectionist’s view that the person is inferior or incapable, which in turn reinforces expectations of poor performance. This downward spiral saps energy of people interacting with the perfectionist who stop putting in their best performance as they know they are unlikely to ever earn positive recognition or appreciation from the perfectionist.
Perfectionism rarely, if ever, helps leaders engage with their followers positively or creates enduring value for their organisation or personal relationships. Admittedly, it can help in certain technical roles and in ensuring a leader maintains a high level of functional expertise, but there are very few examples I can think of where it has helped a leader achieve greatness among followers. The exception that springs to mind is the late Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder and CEO, although most of us would agree that he was not an exemplar of great people leadership, often undermining, berating and negatively stretching his staff in the pursuit of perfection.