Employees generally agree that leaders with a passion for excellence, quality and accomplishment benefit their organizations. These qualities place leaders at the top of their fields. No one faults managers who give their all and make sacrifices, but too much of a good thing can also pose problems.
Perfectionistic leaders may be as damaging as those who embrace mediocrity. Perfectionists often obsess over process, commonly insisting that tasks be completed their way. Often accompanying perfectionism is obsessive-compulsive behavior, with leaders demanding adherence to narrow windows of acceptable norms. While ostensibly committed to doing what’s best, perfectionists have tightly controlled definitions of what best means.
Perfectionistic leaders frustrate their people, burden them with extreme expectations and cause resentment. A leader’s desire to do the right thing leads to a rigidly controlled, distrusting and unaccepting culture that smothers people into submission. Fortunately, there are ways to understand and deal with perfectionism while maintaining excellence and productivity.
Do You Have Perfectionistic Tendencies?
Perfectionists believe they have a keen mind for what works (and what doesn’t). They assess optimal methods and outcomes, endeavoring to implement them—a fine goal, as long as leaders avoid obsession.
By definition, an obsession is a dominant, persistent focus on a thought or feeling that overrules all others. Obsessions take leaders down ineffective paths, where they’re blinded into believing that effectiveness is possible only when absolute perfection is achieved. The cycle then escalates: The more leaders focus on efficacy, the greater their need for perfection.
Perfectionists strive for excellence and virtue in everything they do, notes psychotherapist and leadership consultant Beatrice Chestnut, PhD, in The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace (Post Hill Press, 2017). Their quest, however, manifests as a noticeable compulsion and calculated culture that alienates many employees. Though perfection is truly unattainable, perfectionistic leaders remain unconvinced. They continue to push for their desired outcomes, even as the consequences of their actions call for corrections.
Perfectionistic leaders develop the skills to blend reason, logic, emotion and insight. They rely on these tools to affirm their sense of purpose—a strategy that helps them solve and avoid problems, while providing motivation and comfort.
If you spot some of these tendencies in your behavior, you may, indeed, be a perfectionist. Despite your best intentions, you may be causing your people and organization to struggle. The more you focus on raising the bar, the less likely you are to see the harmful effects on those around you. Fortunately, a qualified leadership coach can help you assess your issues and develop a healthier, more effective leadership style.
Perfectionism’s Pros and Cons
Leaders who strive for excellence can lay strong foundations for their organizations. They:
- Aim for the highest standards, through ethical conduct and honorable motives
- Are dedicated to the organization’s mission, with support and intentionality
- Exude reliability, honesty, integrity, diligence and perseverance
- Honor organizational policies, rules and practices with the structure they provide
- Are detail-oriented, with a clear understanding of how things work
- Have few ego issues, seeking every opportunity to excel
- Are terrific teachers who help others learn and improve
But when taken to extremes, these traits create dissent, employee dissatisfaction and turnover. When leaders prioritize outcomes over people, employee morale and a leader’s legacy suffer. On the negative end of the spectrum, perfectionistic leaders:
- Hold unrealistic expectations of excellence that people can never meet
- Engage in black-and-white thinking, leading them to reach rash or unfair conclusions
- Believe their way is the best way—in short, the only way
- Criticize those who disagree with their assessments and solutions
- Assume others cannot complete work as effectively as they can
- Take on too much work, without delegating, believing others will achieve lesser results
- Make goals seem more critical than necessary
- Often micromanage or control projects to ensure their standards prevail
- Can be tough to please, as results are seldom good enough
- Pressure themselves into doing better and continually need more from their people
- Are so focused on methods and results that they fail to notice (or deal with) their detrimental effects on employees
- Are unwilling to develop other leaders or successors, believing no one can lead the organization or replace them
If some of these behaviors sound uncomfortably familiar to you, perfectionism may be jeopardizing your organization and career. Your people need room to breathe and the freedom to contribute with the skills they have. There’s almost always more than one way to achieve a goal. Perfection, as desirable as it may seem, is deceptively dangerous.
Signs and Symptoms
Perfectionistic leaders exhibit widely observable behavioral patterns. They have a precise manner, with a keen attention to detail, punctuality, specificity and process. Tunnel vision causes them to adhere strongly to established policies and procedures. They show displeasure with those whose priorities differ, and they instruct their people to follow “the plan.” They issue compulsively frequent reminders and criticisms.
Perfectionists assign people to one of two categories: those who support their values and methods vs. those who dissent. Their attempts to teach or make suggestions are largely firm or critical. When these leaders receive negative feedback, they become judgmental and biased.
Perfectionistic leaders are generally inflexible and loath to entertain other ideas. They may become self-righteous when they’ve determined their analysis is thorough and needs no improvement. They hover over employees, attempting to ensure each task is performed perfectly. They emphasize the value of hard work, obsess over details, quickly highlight errors and believe mistakes are catastrophic. Their language and tone convey distrust in others. Declining to delegate is their way of protecting their systems, values and control. Working for them can be unbearable.
Breaking the Habit
Perfectionism’s negative tendencies outweigh the positives when taken to extremes. Consider retaining an experienced executive coach if you’re struggling with a perfectionistic personality. Coaching encourages collaborative, reasonable behaviors that allow you to accomplish noble goals.
Perfectionists must learn how to back away from the relentless urge to seek an unblemished track record. Virtually no project will run flawlessly in the business world, nor should this be one’s goal. Excellence is attainable, so learn to differentiate it from perfection. Over-the-top efforts to realize perfection are unnecessary and counterproductive.
Perfectionistic leaders can learn that success is earned by giving their best and making the most practical choices. Mistakes and oversights are common, and there are always creative ways to work around, mitigate and minimize their impact. The world will never run on perfection, nor will any conscientious leader.
Leaders must recognize how their criticisms affect people and their work. Take the time to gauge morale and productivity levels. Work with a trusted colleague, mentor or coach to improve how you offer feedback and suggestions.
Leaders who are determined to conquer their perfectionistic tendencies will make the greatest strides, Dr. Chestnut explains. Changing one’s mindset is a process that requires transparency and humility. Diligent leaders can learn to adopt proper perspectives.
Reformed perfectionists learn how to be open to other ideas, agree to be teachable and recognize that no one has all the answers. Problems can be solved in multiple ways. The most successful leaders surround themselves with smart, innovative people who bring great ideas to the table. Collaboration is a strength; valuing only your own ideas is a liability.
Working for a Perfectionistic Leader
If you report to a perfectionist, resist the urge to express resentment, defiance or disrespect. Rebelliousness goads perfectionists into reacting, thus worsening your relationship. You want to avoid doing irreparable damage. Be advised, however, that submissiveness is not the answer.
Perfectionistic leaders value unity, knowing it’s key to attaining excellence. They want to be understood and have their core values appreciated. Demonstrate your commitment to excellence by telling your boss that you, too, value quality and integrity—a strategy that will enhance your relationship. While you may disagree on specific methods, work toward conveying your opinions and finding workable compromises, Dr. Chestnut advises.
Emphasize common goals so your boss values your partnership enough to address disagreements willingly. Discuss differences in rational, calm and respectful ways. Help your boss see alternative paths to goals. Outline pros and cons to discover why your leader prefers one approach to another. Detail-oriented leaders value input when they’re guided to objective conclusions. Be willing to critique your own ideas, as well.
Perfectionists, who think clearly and definitively, are more likely to be on your wavelength if you work methodically, as well. Find ways to express appreciation for your boss’s willingness to solve problems and make decisions jointly. Be accountable and willing to apologize for mistakes or delays, which builds trust and prevents judgmental responses. Perfectionistic leaders appreciate positive, but honest, feedback when their teams are attentively pursuing their goals.
You can support your boss’s coveted processes and procedures while offering additional ideas. Let your boss see you as a consistently positive and trustworthy influence, which may diminish hypervigilance and micromanagement. When perfectionistic leaders accept alternate strategies, their grip on black-and-white thinking may loosen. They may come to realize that success doesn’t require perfection or a breakneck work pace. As they learn that processes benefit from some give-and-take, their leadership style may evolve.