Hi. My name is Tracey and I’m a recovering perfectionist.
As far back as I can remember getting things perfect was insanely important to me. Perfect grades: why stop at an A when you could get an A+? Perfect hair: back in the big hair days of the 80s/90s this took time and commitment. And, my hair spray, teasing comb and blow dryer will tell you straight up – I had serious commitment! It didn’t matter what it was … if I was doing it, it needed to be perfect.
By the time I joined the working world, this tendency to seek perfection shifted from a casual habit to a fairly ingrained personality trait. What’s more, being a perfectionist served me well professionally in the early days. I quickly became known for doing quality work and being someone who would always take it to the next level.
Back then, “perfect” was not something I ever thought I would need to recover from; on the contrary, in fact, I reveled in the high of achieving perfection. I went after it doggedly and when I achieved it, you can bet I took a moment to stop and dance around in it. Nothing was better than that shot of euphoria I got from doing something perfectly.
Stop Being Perfect to be a Better Manager
All of this carousing around in perfection came to an abrupt halt not too long after I first became a manager. Like so many of us, my track record and “bring it on” attitude landed me in the role of people leader. This, my friends, is where the trouble started. What I learned (the hard way, of course) is that as a manager with a team of actual people to lead, perfection comes at a very high price. Namely? Your sanity. And more importantly? The sanity of your team. These are two things one should not take lightly.
The truth was I was supremely unprepared to lead a team of people at work. Despite a strong belief in leadership and a fair amount of success leading teams outside of work, this was new territory for me. I didn’t have a guidebook. My team didn’t come with instructions. That left me to my own devices, which like most people, meant I would slay this new challenge in the same way that had worked for me in the past.
My First Inclination Was Simply To Work Harder
Letting go of perfection wasn’t something I was willing to do in my new role. I tried to be a perfect manager. Believe me when I tell you that I tried hard. At first I thought the trouble was that I simply was new to the role. I needed some time to get my footing. I was sure that I could perfect my role as a leader if I worked really, really hard. After all, it was the act of hard work that had got me there in the first place. So I went after it. I tried to be everywhere at once. I thought being a leader meant I had to know it all, so I got into the weeds on everything. It didn’t matter who on my team was assigned to a task or a project, since I was ultimately accountable I embraced it as my own and pushed for perfection.
My Wake-Up Call
You can imagine the fallout. Perhaps you can even relate. Three things happened that gave me the wake-up call that I needed.
- I (nearly) burnt myself out. Achieving perfection as an individual contributor was hard enough, but keeping up the frenetic pace that it required as a leader was impossible. I finally realized that no matter how many nights and weekends I put in, it would never be enough. This left me feeling lost. If hard work wasn’t the answer – what was?
- I started to recognize a subtle shift in the energy of my team. Less ideas were surfaced. Enthusiasm dwindled. Creativity was not what it once was. Worst of all? We weren’t having fun anymore. This kept me up at night. Why wasn’t the team as motivated as I was to get things done? It didn’t take too much introspection to figure out that that it I was the one who was to blame. Talk about a wake-up call!
- My own manager helped me see things differently. Like me, he was an achiever to the core, but little did I know that he was also a reformed perfectionist. It wasn’t hard for him to see the mistakes I was making. In a one-on-one that I will never forget he handed me a piece of paper that said: You will get everything done that needs to get done and it will be good enough.
That mantra and the conversation that followed stopped me in my tracks. It changed my way of thinking and gave me permission to stop pushing for perfection, from myself and from my team. I carried that piece of paper around with me for years. It became a touchstone that helped guide me during the times I was apt to backslide or become overwhelmed.
Tips to Ditch those Perfect Tendencies and Be a Better Manager
- Perfection is the enemy of creativity and growth. I was convinced my job as a manager was to know it all and solve every problem that my team members encountered. The result wasn’t pretty. I was Chief Fire Fighter – going around playing the hero, quick to dose any and all problems. While I got things under control in rapid order most of the time, what I didn’t see clearly was that it was at the expense of my team. People need the chance to fight their own fires. It’s in these situations that they take ownership, think more creatively and ultimately grow. A leader should support and coach, but let individuals own the problem and the solution. In the end, their solutions may even exceed your own. That’s when you know you’ve done your job well.
- Speaking of coaching … stop making excuses. I told myself all kinds of lies to get out of coaching. Some of my favorites were:
“I’m just too busy for coaching!”
“It’s easier to do it myself.”
“What if my coaching isn’t well received? That will just make things worse.”I was very good at convincing myself that if my coaching wasn’t perfect, I was better off avoiding it. Avoidance, however, is the kiss of death for leaders. You have to ask yourself, “What’s at stake if I don’t do it?” Little issues can spiral into big ones. Relationships with your team members may suffer. Engagement, motivation and effort could plummet – putting everything you’re working so hard to achieve at risk. The price of avoidance is high. Find a simple coaching model that works for you and get out there and use it.
- Fail your way forward. For recovering perfectionists, this is a tough pill to swallow. As a leader you are especially vulnerable to failure. It’s inevitable. You’re going to make mistakes – lots of them. Big ones! The trick is to be ready for it. Leading people is an art, not a science. Reframe how you think about failure – not as a setback, but as path to growth. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Be willing to risk, be ready to fail and take time to reflect on what you learn from it.
So, to all the perfectionists out there, I get it. Maybe you’ve been wooed by the sense of euphoria and accomplishment that comes with perfection. Or, maybe it’s just part of your DNA. But if you want to be a truly successful and impactful leader, it’s time to put your perfectionist desires aside. The most successful managers show us that motivating and inspiring people, and coaching them to be their best, isn’t about being perfect – it’s about putting people first.