Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

Focused businessman is reading through magnifying glass documen

Several years ago, my sister gave me a book about how to deal with the controlling perfectionists in our lives. She said I might benefit from an impartial description of — get this — me.


Okay, so I only had two standards: perfect and unacceptable. That didn’t make me a bad person did it?

It’s not like I imposed my unreasonably high standards on my family or people at work. After all, I’ve always said, “Don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough.” And I talked plenty about building a culture where failures are learning experiences and not short-cuts to the unemployment line, of embracing our own failures as stepping stones on the road to self-improvement, yadda yadda yadda.

Other people’s failures, of course.

So what’s the problem with having unreasonably high standards?

The problem is that is makes us damned hard to work for. And guess what, as leaders it’s not about us; it’s about them. We don’t get the best from people when we bully them — yes, perfectionists bully, even if that’s not our intent.

Perfectionists notice only what’s wrong and not what’s right. But if our feedback style doesn’t include some encouragement about the good while we’re delivering the bad and the ugly, we’re liable to stop seeing the good at all.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

It used to be a gold-star day when someone got a report past me without needing some re-work. Did that motivate them to try their best? Only initially, but when they learned their best would never been good enough, they started sending me crap knowing I’d put the effort into polishing the turd. Hardly the practice of a high-performing team.

Perfectionists are inflexible, resistant to change, and stubborn about having it done our way. Nothing wrong with that, since our way is the best, right? I can assure you that when we aren’t willing to let others do a task less well than we would do it ourselves, we end up pretty much doing everything ourselves anyway. Then we complain about being overworked, underappreciated, and short on the time and energy we need to be spending as leaders.

My mother would say, “You kind of brought that on yourself, didn’t you?”

With a tip of the hat to Maya Angelou, “…people will never forget how you made them feel.” Perfectionist bosses make others feel like they can’t do anything right. Not the legacy I wanted to leave as a leader, but what was I to do? ‘Good enough’ is the last thing I wanted to be remembered as.

Oh, that’s right… it’s not about me; it’s about them.

The good news: it’s simple to change. The bad news: it’s not that easy.

First, admit it — like any good twelve step program. Admit that you’re holding others to a standard that you, yourself can’t meet, and in the process holding the organization hostage.

The second step simply requires you to reframe success. Is perfection success? Probably. What about excellent? How about fully compliant and on time? What if your email gets the message delivered effectively but is missing a comma? Can you see where I’m going with that?

That’s it. That’s all it took for me. (Okay, like anyone in recovery, I’m a work in progress.)

Make sure your people know what success looks like, and when they get there, let them know it. Set clear and reasonable (achievable) expectations for them — and yourself — and celebrate when they’re met. That doesn’t mean settle for good enough; by all means, shoot for the stars, make continuous improvements, set audacious goals. Just make sure you’ve effectively communicated what success looks like and be happy when you get there.

What about you? Are you impossible to please?

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.