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Perfectionist Traps in Leadership

perfectionist traps in leaders

When I started this company, I envisioned us as more than just a consulting or leadership coaching firm – I saw us as a learning company. We help people think and do differently related to their mindset and their behaviors. And while our primary focus is on assisting people in learning new skills – we often find ourselves helping folks unlearn skills along the way.  

One of the most common traps we see people fall into that we help them unlearn is the trap of perfectionism. People are often so focused on doing something perfectly before they are willing to take action.  

What is Perfectionism? 

Perfectionism is the difference between being thorough and being paralyzed by it. You know, sometimes people can be hyper-vigilant to the point they could be paralyzed from doing anything at all. And you know, whenever I would hear the term perfection, I always thought of it as one thing: building something without any flaws.  

But it’s more than that. When I talk to people who suffer from perfectionism (myself included), you’ll find that there is much more to it than just building a product or service with no flaws. It goes deep into what we need for approval and fear of failure about ourselves.  

Did I hit a chord for some of you on that last one? I never thought of myself behaving in perfect ways because I wasn’t overly organized, I struggle with attention to detail, and it doesn’t bother me how the towels are folded. However, there were so many times in my life when I didn’t move forward with something because I didn’t feel like I was good enough. It wasn’t perfect enough for me. Or I didn’t feel like I was the right person to do it. I didn’t feel like things were ready or done. And again, there is a difference between being truly not good enough and being paralyzed by fear of something not being good enough.  

How Does Perfectionism Show Up in the Workplace 

The way that I’ve come to understand perfectionism is that it’s driven by a fear of failure or a fear of loss of control. We need to have everything in a certain way because we need that sense of control and safety. It might manifest as delaying starting something or not putting our name out there because we’re afraid we’re going to fail. I refer to this facet of perfectionism as Searching. We are searching for the right way to do something.  

When we are in a state of high perfection, we can be overly critical of ourselves and others; we can get locked into thinking there is only one “right way” to do something and often procrastinate.  

Many assumptions come with a perfectionist mindset that can hold you back. 

For instance, many perfectionists assume that others will think less of them when they make mistakes or ask for help. They also believe that it will be wrong if they do not do something perfectly. These assumptions are often incorrect. The reality is that many people respect those who dare to ask for help and strive for excellence. 

Overcoming Perfectionism by Changing Your Mindset 

Many perfectionists try to overcome their tendency toward perfectionism by trying harder and working longer hours. While this approach may work in the short term, it’s unlikely to be sustainable in the long run because it does nothing to change your mindset. 

If you want to overcome perfectionism, you need to change how you think about yourself, other people, and the world around you.  

When I was writing Don’t Feed the Elephants! I carried several assumptions about how the work should look as I wrote. As a leadership book, it should match the sometimes-academic tone those books have that should be formatted in a certain way. I tortured myself over these assumptions for months. 

It was only when I had a conversation with my colleague Kristin who sat me down and told me in not so direct terms, “Sarah, it’s time to write the book; you’ve talked about it as long as I know you. Let’s make it happen.” The truth is I needed that tough love to disrupt the pattern of perfectionism that was paralyzing me. Once I could free myself from these perfectionist assumptions and start to write the book in my voice. What resulted was a body of work authentic to my voice and a finished text that could be published. 

How can we shift out of perfectionism? By embracing an experimentation mindset and moving from being critical to curious, moving from searching for the “one right path” to testing our assumptions. Finally, moving from procrastination to exploring multiple paths.  

Experimentation in Action 

A great example of this in my own life is my journey to finding rest as rhythm and not as a reward for hustling until I collapse. About a year and a half ago, I realized that the level of work I was trying to manage was not sustainable. It damaged my health and the health of my relationships. I remember my mom would call me, and it would almost always be in a whisper where she would apologize for calling or interrupting me. 

I never wanted my family to feel like they were interrupting me. My mom is one of the most influential people in my life. She gets priority over overwork. So, I knew I needed to do something differently. 

I was exhausted most of the time. I was tired in a way that wasn’t manageable. I wasn’t speaking clearly. I wasn’t working at my best level. While my default was “how do I perfect rest?” I realized there wasn’t one correct answer. Instead, I embraced an experimenter’s mindset. 

So, the first thing was to get deeply curious about what my relationship with the rest looked like. I dug into what beliefs I held about it. Intellectually, I know everything to do to create better sleep – shorter working hours, a dark room, no electronics 30 minutes before bedtime, etc. But even though I knew I knew those things, I wasn’t doing them. Seeking more ways to sleep better wasn’t going to help me.  

When I would eventually take naps, I would find myself waking up with my heart racing and my head ruminating about the number of things I could be doing if I wasn’t lying here. It became clear that I didn’t have a good relationship with rest in my curiosity. Even if unconscious, I held beliefs that taking time to rest wasn’t productive.   

Testing Your Assumptions to Explore Perfectionist Tendencies 

Once I knew I was holding limiting beliefs, I started to push my assumptions. One of my main assumptions was that resting better meant I needed to sleep better. I began to explore other ways I could recharge myself physically, mentally, and emotionally to test this assumption.   

I realized quickly that everything I did outside of work was still related to work. I would read for pleasure in my free time, but it was books about leadership and coaching theory. My therapist asked me once what I read for fun, and I said, “anything leadership or human-related,” to which she said, “you realize that’s still working, right?” I tried video games and needlepoint, which allowed me the first real opportunity to do something just for me. To focus on me. To help my brain focus, like a snow globe that’s been shaken that has finally settled.  

But the one thing that I discovered unexpectedly was, and still is, one of the most important things I do for my mental health, and that’s playing the accordion. 

Playing the accordion is the one thing that settles my brain. I’m able to focus entirely when I’m playing. It gives me a chance to connect with my parents because they love to play. And during the pandemic, when we were so isolated, it gave me a chance to speak with them in a new way.  

So all this to say is this, if I had only focused on perfecting rest. If I had only focused on perfecting my sleep, I would have missed this discovery. The thing that I needed.  

Questions to Ask to Break Perfectionisms and Embrace Experimentation 

Looking at your situation and exploring your assumptions, I would encourage you to ask the following of yourself: 

  • What questions am I not asking?  
  • What questions do I have? 
  • What other questions can I explore? 
  • What assumptions am I making?  
  • What can I do to test those assumptions?  
  • What small experiments can I run?  
  • What did I learn from those experiments?

When we are so focused on finding the right way, we may miss out on seeing what is suitable.  

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