The Three Pitfalls of Perfectionism

Has this happened to you?

Growing up, you came home from school having received a 98 on a test. You tell your Mom or Dad.

They reply, “What happened to the other 2 points?”

You bring your report card home.  You’ve got all A’s except for one B+.  What does the conversation focus on?

The B+.If this happened to you (and you now have those same conversations with yourself around achievement) you might be a perfectionist.

Perfectionism is defined as the refusal to accept any standard which contains any flaws or defects.

Perfectionists don’t need everything to be alright:  they need everything to be all right.Perfectionists are very good at rationalizing the upside of their condition:

  • You have to have an eye for detail.

  • You need high standards for success.

  • You have to work hard to get ahead.

  • If you want to achieve, you don’t let anything fall through the cracks.

Removed from the context of day to day living, these statements all sound good.However, there are pitfalls to perfectionism.  Here are the big three:

  1. Perfectionism Impedes Learning

Perfectionists operate with what psychologist Carol Dweck in her landmark book Mindset calls a fixed mindset.  Fixed mindset people believe your being good or bad at something is due to inherent nature:  it’s just who you are.

When human beings want to learn anything, we go through a process.  That process involves going through the tension from not knowing to knowing. Learning can be uncomfortable and even painful.

Growth comes from failure.  When does your bicep get stronger?  Only after you’ve worked it to failure.Perfectionists (with their fixed mindset) don’t connect learning with growth.  They only connect learning to failure.  The discomfort of the learning experience feels horrible to them. They feel the pain of that tension and think “You’ll never be able to do this.  Give up now.”  And they stop.

2. Perfectionism Stifles Innovation

When you stay in your “perfect” comfort zone, you stay in the old and familiar.  This keeps you from taking risks.Innovation, whether it focuses on product, process or people, always involves the new.

Perfectionists avoid taking on new challenges that would threaten their “perfect” track record.  This shuts down their creative side.If that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse.The double whammy is that perfectionists also can’t tolerate new ideas in others.  You may recognize some of their idea-killing comments:

  • That’ll never work.

  • We tried that before.

  • It’s too expensive.

  • (Big sigh. Rolling of the eyes.)

3. Perfectionism Breeds Negativity

Perfectionism is a petri dish of negative emotions.  Perfectionists constantly scan the landscape, looking for flaws to correct.  To keep their roving critical eye always open, the perfectionist fuels themselves on a steady diet of negativity:

  • Anxiety

  • Criticism (self and others)

  • Blame

  • Incredulity

  • Fear

  • Frustration

The perfectionist develops a warped view of competence.  Their benchmark for competence (zero flaws and defects) is unattainable, and they’ll set unrealistically demanding goals. This creates a perpetual state of disappointment.  Over time, as their energy to keep watch wanes, the perfectionist’s moods may move from anxiety and frustration to hopeless and depressed.

Of course, the moods of the perfectionist don’t just affect themselves. Moods are contagious, and the moods of leaders are especially contagious.  One well-placed perfectionist is all it takes to wreak emotional dysfunction in a company.

So what’s a perfectionist to do?One place to start—and this is hard for the hard-core perfectionist:

Put out imperfect work.

Let’s face it, the fact is there is no such thing as perfect.  With any endeavor, there’s always room for improvement.  Taken to its extreme, “Absolute Quality” will put every business out of business.

Draw the line at 90%.  Get it 90% good–and then ship.

Yes, you’ll see the flaws, and you can make it better…the next time.  (That, by the way, is a growth mindset in action.)

The fact is, if you’re such a perfectionist and your standards are so high, your 90% may be the equivalent of others 100%.

And for a perfectionist, getting to 90% takes half of the effort that getting it to “100%”.

So shoot for 90%.  And get it done.

What other pitfalls of perfectionism do you see?  What solutions do you recommend?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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