Pesky Perfection

Last week friends and I had lunch with Jane, who had just returned from London, enroute to her next posting in Singapore. Given her international moves over the last five years or so, it was clear that Jane was going places. When I asked about her new job, Jane showered us with anxiety about her ability to perform in the new position, which was essentially the same role and organisation, but in a different location.

It seemed like the weight of Asia was on her shoulders. Jane admitted that she had become comfortable in London, where she knew her job inside out and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to contribute 100% (if not more), immediately. I thought to myself,  blokes don’t talk like this, and hoped an HR mole wasn’t lurking in the corner of the cafe.

Although Jane was about bound to be stressed about the relocation, there was something else bothering her. After all, Jane was bright, highly competent in her area of expertise and multi-lingual to boot. With a little prodding, Jane confessed she was a bit of a perfectionist and had high expectations of herself. In her book It’s Not a Glass Ceiling It’s a Sticky Floor, Rebecca Shamburgh writes:

Perfectionists function in a mode where nothing is good enough but their self-imposed standards are far higher than others expect

Jane exhibited the tell tale signs, especially self doubt; risk aversion; low tolerance for mistakes in yourself and others and fear of failure.

Shamburgh says it is important to know when to say “this is good enough” and move on. Over perfectionism can also send the message that you aren’t confident and overtrying to get it right and that we should ask ourselves “Is this really what the job requires or are you requiring it of yourself?” Why can being a Perfectionist be a problem? The big risk is that while obsessing over the perfect output, you might actually miss the big picture, distort perceptions about your capability, sabotaging your career in the process. Nevermind the stress you may be placing on yourself and your relationships. What can you do to overcome being a Perfectionist?

  1. Think about why you are a Perfectionist. What do you get from it and what does it cost you?
  2. Check your standards of performance against your goals. Ask yourself, “Is this good enough to get the job done?”. If so, let go and move on (or go home!).
  3. Seek feedback from stakeholders. Use it to calibrate your standards &  guide the work, rather than your exacting but arbitrary standards.
  4. Identify peers who are recognised as great leaders. Observe them as they deal with similar work situations.
  5. Focus on the things that matter & bring the most value to your organisation. Decide what you really need or want to do, and delegate the rest.

Shamburgh says that letting go of your standards doesn’t mean slacking off. It’s about putting your energy and attention to better use. So, to all of the talented Janes out there, is being a Perfectionist getting in the way of your career?

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  • Well said Mary. Rebecca’s (and yours) advice is spot on. As someone who suffers the ‘perfectionist’s affliction’ myself, I know how hard it can be to let go of the details in order to achieve the bigger goal. I’ve now trained myself to ‘see the whole board’ as it relates to my priorities and that has helped immensely.

    • Thanks Charles. And it’s always good to be reminded that our perception of ‘perfection’ may not be viewed the same way by others!