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Four tips to overcome perfectionism

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Nuala Walsh is CEO at MindEquity and a behavioral scientist with advisory boards in business, sports, and nonprofits.

Michelangelo has the Pietà sculpture. Some say it is one of his best works. But one day he used a sledgehammer to deliberately… damage his arm and leg† Were there any flaws in the marble? Was the stone too hard? Was the chisel too blunt? Some speculate that he was frustrated and… wanted it to be perfect† Sounds familiar?

Do you write endless iterations of a presentation or proposal? Do you delve into an email, spend hours on a Tweet, or strive to put together the perfect Instagram pose? If so, you may be a perfectionist. When I advise leaders on the commercial ramifications of perfectionism, many recognize it, but still struggle. I get it – I’m guilty of making dozens of draft presentations. Many of us hold ourselves to impossible standards and fixate on imperfections or, worse, the imperfections of others. However, this can be checked.

A spectrum of perfection

Perfectionism is a personality trait that manifests itself in an endless striving to live up to often unrealistic and idealistic expectations. Leaders who are perfectionists may cling to the illusion of control or be driven by a deep-seated fear of failure. You may be the person who wants to be perfect, wants others to be perfect or wants your country, society or organization to be perfect.

Precision and perfection matter in industries such as engineering, aerospace, law or medicine, where detail orientation determines the essential levels of customer safety, patient well-being, legal rigor and operational efficiency. Adhering to exacting research and development standards can inspire innovation, space missions, next-generation treatments and architectural excellence.

But in business, literature and media, artistic “perfection” is a form of self-expression open to subjective interpretation rather than objective expression. For example, think of Michael Jackson: According to rolling stone Jackson said he was “never satisfied” and believed in perfection. Even when a song reached number 1, he would criticize what he should have done differently.

While perfectionist might help you deliver quality work, it can also come with some pitfalls.

The pitfalls of perfectionism

When I work with organizational leaders, few see how this trait can demand a high professional and personal price. There are several hidden challenges:

• Unfulfilled personal expectation: It’s easy to feel depressed when reality messes up a well-crafted plan. When this happens, perfectionists can have feelings of anxietylower self-esteem and defensive.

• Extensive consultation: Perfectionists with extremely high expectations can annoy, slow down or demotivate colleagues. Some can chew the cud for a long time without solving a dilemma. For example, Steve Jobs of Apple, who: includingsaid “was once an adamant perfectionist”, deliberated on furniture for eight years for his new home because he was looking for the perfect choice, his wife explained in the book Steve Jobs (via the New Yorker

• Impeded Productivity: Perfectionism can be a enemy of productivity† Spending more time on a project does not necessarily lead to a better result. My former boss used to say, “Done is better than perfect.” He was right. Many perfectionists master and struggle to prioritize what’s important, especially when feedback is interpreted as criticism.

• Ethical Error: Under pressure, some perfectionists may think the only way to maintain perfection is to compromise ethics. Cyclist Lance Armstrong, for example, denied taking performance-enhancing drugs for 20 years and then admitted it. He attributed his denial to the pressure to get a perfect “fairy tale image

Three signs you’re a perfectionist

You may recognize perfectionism because you recognize it in others, but less so in yourself. You could tell yourself that you are professional – everything else would indicate imperfection after all. Friends or colleagues may point it out, but you reject them. Or maybe you see perfectionism as a virtuous devotion to greatness. Three tell-tale signs can help you recognize it in yourself:

• Unrealistic standards: In my experience, perfectionists are often maximizers, not satisficers. Often described as a perfectionist, innovator James Dyson built 5,127 prototypes and Been perfecting for 15 years the first stick vacuum cleaner. Beware, because obsessively pursuing goals can also have a dark side.

• Unwilling to accept ‘good enough’: For some perfectionists, mistakes can be a complete disaster. There is no room for good enough – only perfect. When Titanic film director James Cameron learned that the stars were misaligned in part of the film, he said… re-record the scene

• Excessive procrastination: Perfectionists often get stuck in a cycle of procrastination† Studies show that some forms of perfectionism to predict procrastination and life satisfaction. Many people put off making wills, changing jobs, or saving for retirement because “the time is never quite right.” Sometimes perfectionism just hides indecision.

Mastering perfectionism?

Individuals can employ several strategies to manage their perfectionism:

1. Recalibrate what matters: Recognize when you or your team has reached the point of diminishing returns. Extra hours on an article, pitch, presentation or email can be well spent, but only if it generates enough business impact. Focus on marginal gains, and adjust the benchmark as appropriate.

2. Cherish self-compassion. Most situations are not cases of life or death. Be kind to yourself, because striving for the impossible is exhausting and a source of inevitable disappointment. Perspective gives you a psychological distance.

3. Embrace imperfection. Psychologist Elliot Aronson suggests making mistakes, such as spilling coffee or tripping over, can make a person more approachable and less strict. Richard Shotton reported in WARC, a study found that 66% of consumers even prefer serrated biscuits over perfectly round biscuits.

4. Set realistic standards. Find the middle ground between high-performance goals and mediocrity. Don’t wear perfectionism as a badge of honor. Success is about subjective standards. Don’t demotivate others by imposing unrealistic standards.

Perfectionism can be a professional and personal trap. Ironically, I believe it merely proves the existence of human imperfection. There is no need to smash your own sculpture. In the process, you could be destroying value not only for yourself, but also for those around you.


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