Have you ever sat for hours, tweaking a piece of work? When it’s almost done but you need to fix “just one more thing”?
You’re not alone. Perfectionist leaders exist in many workplaces.
Unfortunately, being a perfectionist leader kills productivity and can frustrate teams.
Where Does Perfectionism Come From?
Goodtherapy.org lists a bunch of factors that may cause perfectionism, including a person’s upbringing, fear of criticism or mental health issues.
In a workplace setting, I believe perfectionist leaders are at their worst in the following circumstances:
- When senior leaders reinforce a culture of blame. When managers are belittled, criticised and bullied for making mistakes, perfectionist tendencies may appear. Perfect work won’t be criticised, right?
- When organisational politics causes a “point-scoring” mentality. When people in an organisation are rewarded for nit-picking other people’s work to make them look bad, perfectionism will be more common.
- When organisations don’t care about learning. If your team never learns from mistakes, then perfection is one option to stop making them altogether. Unfortunately, this will send productivity plummeting.
Problems With Being a Perfectionist Leader
1. Perfectionism = Productivity Plummeting
Being proud of the work you produce is a good thing, but not when it gets in the way of getting things done.
Every minute you spend perfecting your work is a minute that you’re not working on something else. We call that the opportunity cost.
What opportunity are you missing because you’re spending time perfecting something that is basically already done?
2. Perfectionist Leaders Can Cause Team Frustration and Uncertainty
A perfectionist leader likes things to be “just right”.
So when you review some work that your team has produced, imagine the potential impact when you demand constant updates before you’re happy with it.
Back in my management consulting days, I used to call this the “What am I thinking?” game.
Our team would produce something and then submit it to the senior partners for review. Then, after not really telling us what they were looking for, they would criticise and change it, resulting in red pen all over the document.
Of course, instead of making the changes themselves, we would have to interpret what the changes were and update it. This took a long time, because we were not exactly sure what they were thinking, and they weren’t readily contactable to discuss any of it.
3. Perfectionist Leaders Create More of Themselves
When a team has a perfectionist leader, they tend to start to become perfectionists themselves.
They want to avoid the endless cycle of review and update, so they spend more time perfecting their work before giving it to their boss.
This creates a process full of wasted time where effort could be better spent elsewhere.
You may think that because the team has “perfected” the work before it gets to the manager, this may mean less time is spent later on.
However, this isn’t always the case, because the perfectionist leader has their own ideas of what the perfect piece of work looks like.
Handy Tips to Stop the Quest for Perfection
1. Remember That “Done is Better Then Perfect”
Before you finish your work, nobody gets to benefit from it, because it’s not “out there”. When you spend too much time perfecting it, it takes longer for anybody to see it.
On the other hand, the earlier you can get your work out the door and into the hands of your customers, whoever they may be, the sooner you get valuable feedback on your work, and the sooner everyone gets to benefit from what you’ve produced.
2. Focus on Creating Value
Perfectionist leaders often spin their wheels making sure things are “just right”. The real key is to stay mindful of what value your work is bringing.
Is your work valuable because it’s perfect? Or is your work valuable because it is useful to someone else, even with imperfections?
For surface shine, 80% might be more than enough. After that, the tweaking is for us, not those we seek to serve.
– Seth Godin, The myth of mirror magic
Remember that in most cases, you can always change what you’ve done later, if you really need to. Getting your work out there is often more valuable than getting it perfect.
Ask yourself the question: “What is valuable about this piece of work?” Most likely, it won’t be the perfect, minor details.
3. Communicate Your Expectations Clearly
To avoid the endless review and update cycle, be sure to clearly communicate your expectations to your team. This will limit potential misunderstandings and wasted time.
It will also enable you to hold your team accountable for delivering what you need, because unless they know what you want and why you need it that way, you can’t hold them responsible for getting it wrong!
For more accountability resources, check out the Hold Your Team Accountable eBook here.
4. Look for the Root Cause of Your Issues
If your boss or colleagues are consistently criticising your work for insignificant reasons, it’s not likely that this is the real problem. This is just a symptom.
Working harder to achieve perfection won’t solve it. They’ll just find something else to criticise. More likely, you are fighting against issues of trust, respect or politics, where perfection is not the solution.
What are your thoughts on perfectionist leaders? Tell me your stories in the comments below!
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