The Saboteur series: The Perfectionist

The ‘Saboteur series’ is a succession of articles that outline some of the defining characteristics of limiting beliefs that can inhibit leadership effectiveness. Each article explores a particular ‘Saboteur persona’ - a specific set of traits that are observable, and which can shape the behaviours of ourselves as leaders, and those we work with. Some suggestions about how to effectively reduce the limiting effects of such traits are also shared, and developing such strategies can be enhanced by working with a professional Making Stuff Better coach.

Derived from the work of Shirzad Chamine, and outlined in his book Positive Intelligence, each article offers some fascinating insights to ‘people behaviour’.

It’s a phrase we hear from time to time…’Practice makes perfect’. Yet, does it really? I recall my rugby coach at school adding an amendment – “Perfect practice makes perfect”. I wonder how often we consciously, or unconsciously for that matter, actually engage in ‘perfectionist behaviours’ or even ‘perfectionist thinking’? How often do we feel the compulsion to do things ‘just right’. After all, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well… isn’t it?

  • Do you ever feel the compulsion to tweak or adjust something so it is just as you want it?
  • Do you find yourself actively giving lots of time to nuance and detail, and getting frustrated at ‘sloppy’ approaches to work or ‘lazy’ attitudes?
  • Can you spot a typo in an email at 500m away?
  • Does aspiring towards things being ‘just right’ feel like a life’s work – something that brings an inner sense of satisfaction?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, it turns out you are not alone! It seems that there are those in school leadership who, despite having many admirable qualities and well-developed skills, feel an inner compulsion to take control and exert an influence on experiences, tasks, or interactions. Doing so in a way that shape ways of being and doing (as well as outcomes) that are very particular and specific. You may well have heard the expression ‘It’s my way or the highway’. 

Of course, on the face of it, aspiring towards perfection might seem like a positive aspiration. It could be argued that for school leaders, being highly aspirational and having exacting standards (keeping the quality bar set high) is fundamentals of the role. Despite this belief, the reality is rather different, and having a perfectionist tendency can be counterproductive.

It seems that the crux of this is the extent to which imposing our own standards on others as leaders can create a rigidity and inflexibility that is incompatible with the naturally diverse nature of individuals, the dynamic nature of teams, and unpredictable nature of external influences. 

Being a perfectionist tends to make us rather inflexible, and that just won’t cut it when adaptive school leadership is needed. Additionally, it seems that the perfectionist compulsion can lead us to heightened levels of frustration and stress as ‘things don’t always go our way’ and we can be driven to either not engaging at all, or micro-managing in our attempts to ensure things are done ‘just right’.  

Don't let 'perfection' be the enemy of the 'good enough'

For the month of August my wife and her sister committed to walking 10,000 steps every day to raise money for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. This was a significant commitment to something that was important to them. 'How can I support?' I asked myself. Simple, offer some moral support and literally 'walk the walk'. The achievement is theirs...

This led to me to commit to continuing this new 'habit'. However, my 'Perfectionist' was whispering "You'll never do that every day.... so why bother? Things are bound to get in the way, it’s not worth setting yourself up for failure.”

Unfortunately, these internal limiting beliefs do tend to hold us back. Being an Associate Coach with Making Stuff Better has helped me 'notice' the voice of the Perfectionist and develop strategies to reduce its limiting impact. I therefore took a different view..... aspiring toward something positive is better than giving up before you start - I thought.

The 80:20 rule was a helpful ally here too - for 100 days make 80 of these at least 10,000 steps / keep your average on or above 10,000 I thought. This approach 'quietened' my Perfectionist voice and allowed me to stay committed to my goal - 267 days out of 300 over 10K so far.

The message here is that it was better to shift perspective to looking at this as an opportunity (ie the number of steps I do on average in a day), and to frame it as what would be ‘good enough’, rather than ‘not enough’ (as the Perfectionist voice was telling me).

The question is how do I know if I’ve got Perfectionist tendencies? And what can I do about it when this is not serving me positively?

Well, it seems that there are certain identifiable characteristics when it comes to ‘Perfectionist tendencies’. The more able we are at recognising them and noticing the way they manifest in ourselves and others, the better placed we are to manage these limiting beliefs. 

What types of things should you look out for?

If you recognise any of these in yourself or others, it may well be that ‘Perfectionist tendencies’ are present (and holding you or others back)

  • If you see things as typically either right or wrong. If you feel a deep sense of disappointment or frustration when things don’t go ‘right’
  • Tend to be, and value others that are, punctual, precise, and methodical; having a strong need for self-control and self-restraint
  • You are often highly critical of yourself self (and quite often others); feeling that you have to ‘correct things’ when they are wrong
  • This can manifest itself in thoughts associated with ‘imposter syndrome’ (that inner voice that tells you that you are not good enough, and will get found out, is probably a Perfectionist perspective telling you that you aren’t meeting your exacting standards)
  • Workaholic tendencies - being driven by a sense that you need to make up for others’ sloppiness and laziness. You hate mistakes
  • You find you can be highly sensitive to criticism (after all, you are already beating yourself up for being less than perfect!)

What are the pros and cons?

If you recognise any of these in yourself or others, I would encourage you not to be too judgemental (of yourself or others). Having Perfectionist tendencies is a double-edged sword.  It comes with some positive characteristics too if not taken to the extreme.

Look out for these in yourself or others:

  • You will have high ideals and standards, and are often principled. As such you are capable of leading others with clear guiding principles of doing what is ‘right’. These are worthy traits when quality and integrity matters
  • Able to bring organisation, structure and effective processes into situations where there is ambiguity and chaos
  • Self-disciplined, holding yourself and others to account
  • Direct and discerning. Seeing and communicating things as they are. Those you work with will know where they stand

The Perfectionist paradox

When I coach those with Perfectionist tendencies as an Associate with Making Stuff Better (and it certainly takes one to know one) the challenge can not only be acknowledging it in the first place, but recognising the limiting impact of such a tendency.   

Being honest about the negative impact on self and others isn’t easy for those with Perfectionist tendencies as it is a de facto admission that trying to be perfect is itself a flawed approach. How on earth can Perfectionism be flawed? The limiting effects can include:

  • Causes rigidity and reduces flexibility in dealing with individuals’ way of doing things, team dynamics, and external change
  • Is a source of ongoing frustration, disappointment and even anxiety in self as you are drawn to focusing on what isn’t quite right about a process or activity, rather than acknowledging what has been achieved
  • For those in teams, it can cause resentment, anxiety, and self-doubt, with colleagues feeling a sense of resignation in that whatever they do will not be regarded as ‘good enough’

How can I manage me (or others better)?

In reality, like all limiting beliefs, once we recognise the lies that these perspectives are telling us, we tend to have a reason to address them more positively and proactively. Working as a Making Stuff Better coach allows those in school leadership to develop strategies such as:

  • Celebrate your underlying strength (or that of others) so you can let go of the negative associations of the Perfectionist
  • Create two columns in a table: a) 20%: things where highest possible quality really does matter; b) 80%: things where ‘good enough’ is good enough. This will save you mental and emotional energy so you can really give focus to the 20% column for what ‘really’ matters
  • Use the ‘on average’ mindset. This will give you permission to engage in activities that don’t need to be perfect all the time
  • Explore the harshness of constant self -judgement (and judgement of others). What is this costing you?
  • Explore the idea that harsh self-criticism leads to sensitivity to criticism from others, leading to a reluctance to truly seek and benefit from feedback. In our aspiration for self-improvement, feedback can be a valuable ally after all

Limiting beliefs are not unique, we all have them.  They take a number of different forms; from self-judgment (or judgment of others), avoidance behaviours and thinking, highly competitive compulsions and an inner need to excel, and of course - perfectionist tendencies and workaholic behaviours.

Whilst these are rooted in personal qualities and strengths, they can become so magnified, so exaggerated that they no longer serve us and others positively.

In the case of the Perfectionist tendency, being aware of how this limits our ability to engage with uncertainty and be adaptable, noticing the presence and influence of the Perfectionist in us, and shifting our perspective and behaviours, can really support our effectiveness and sense of wellbeing. Working with a professional coach from Making Stuff Better could be one positive step towards tacking a limiting belief that is holding you back.

About the author

Andrew Macdonald-Brown is an Associate for Making Stuff Better.

Making Stuff Better is the executive coaching company for international school leaders.  Working around the globe, we coach ambitious values-driven leaders who want to have a lasting impact in a world that requires agility, collaboration and perspective. We work with principled leaders who understand that only through their own transformation can they change those that they lead.

MSB’s extensive global client base include renowned educational organisations such as Dulwich College International, Berlin International School, Tanglin Trust School, Seoul Foreign School and British School of Amsterdam.