Perfectionism – Taming the Beast!

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During a project management training session several weeks ago, the topic of perfection came up. The training participants denied that they were perfectionists. They couched it in all of the usual ways – saying that they had ‘high standards’, and they were ‘not satisfied with mediocre’, and ‘didn’t want to settle’. They argued that being a perfectionist was a positive attribute, as they were never satisfied with the status quo and always looking to improve.

I offered an alternative view of the perfectionist manager. At the end of a project, a manager looks at the mountain that has just been climbed, only sees what hasn’t been accomplished, and how the summit wasn’t achieved perfectly. I asked the participants how they would feel, if at the end of a 5-year climb, all they were told was what wasn’t done perfectly, what dates or budgets had been missed, and what work there still was to be completed – with no acknowledgement of what had been accomplished. Their answer was quick: discouraged, unsupported, a losing battle, like nothing would ever be good enough. They echoed Harriet Braiker’s thought: “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”

Many of us struggle with managing our perfectionism. We want things to go well, but can actually be communicating to ourselves, our teams, and our families that we expect perfection, and that there will be consequences if things aren’t perfect. If this isn’t the message that we want to communicate, then we, as perfectionists, must learn to discipline ourselves or we risk having people give up on working with us or being with us. After all, no one likes being around someone whose expectations can never be fulfilled.

Managing my perfectionism is a constant conversation with myself. In order to ‘get a handle’ on my perfectionism, I ask these questions of myself:

  • Whose standards are the issue and will they make a difference? This question is about realizing that most times their standards are irrelevant – my standards rule and are the issue. In business I have many times looked at the expected result and then increased the expectation by 20%. I always justified this as ‘under promising and over delivering’. By asking the question I can first determine if over-delivering is necessary, if anyone will even notice, and if I can become OK with delivering average in this area. Over-delivering, when not needed wastes time and energy that I can use later – when it might matter. This one is particularly tricky at home. If I ask my husband to load the dishwasher, I must back-off and let him do it. It isn’t fair to ask him, have him do it, and then complain that he didn’t load the dishwasher correctly when what I really mean is ‘not done perfectly” as judged by me.
  • What is the impact of my perfectionism, and on whom? Identifying the other people involved helps me remember my goals and commitments to them. It grounds me in challenging them, supporting them, and developing them. It reminds me that I don’t want to be the parent, spouse, daughter, manager, or team member for whom nothing is ever good enough.
  • Where are the places that progress can be acknowledge? I consciously identify the places along a project path or a development path where progress can, and should, be acknowledged. It is the acknowledgement of progress that keeps people on the project and in the game. It is this acknowledgement that communicates, ‘I believe in you’ or ‘you can do this’ and supports them so they don’t give up. It reinforces that while we haven’t crossed the finish line yet, we’ll get there!
  • Where am I going to let my perfectionism run wild? Having a place where I don’t control my perfectionism at all enables me to discipline it in other areas of my life. For many people, playing golf is a place where they can strive to be as perfect as they choose. For me, painting a wall where I cut in the seam between wall and ceiling with a 1-inch artist’s brush; playing complicated classical music; or trying to get my body into the right position when riding dressage – are all areas where I can be as perfectionistic as I choose to be. The pressure is relieved to be perfect so that I don’t use it on my husband, team members, or children.

Learning how to discipline and manage your perfectionism means taking responsibility for it. At your best, others will feel pushed and supported to achieve things that they may not have thought possible. At your worst, others will give up, asking themselves ‘why try?’ because nothing is ever good enough. You can be the former! My colleague John always reminds me, at the end of my projects, to resist looking up the mountain. ‘Look back down the mountain, see how far you have come, and acknowledge your team and yourself for the accomplishment.’ Great advice – especially for this recovering perfectionist!


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