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The Perfection Trap: Overcoming a Self-Defeating Behavior

Feb 08, 2023

Striving to be perfect – and expecting others to be perfect as well – can be a self-defeating tendency. In their book, How Women Rise, Sally Helgeson and Marshall Goldsmith describe The Perfection Trap as one of the habits most likely to hold women back in their career progression. 

If you have ever worked for a perfectionist, what was it like for you?

My own experience was very stressful. Perfectionists set a high standard for themselves and often, for others as well, that may be unrealistic. When you work for one, you live in fear of making a mistake.

We sometimes call such managers “micro-managers,” because they try to control every detail and constantly judge performance. It seems that nothing is ever good enough and there is constant pressure not to disappoint. This behavior limits risk-taking and creativity, as well as the opportunity to learn from mistakes and failures.

There is nothing wrong with striving for excellence. Much of my work these days is dedicated to helping others learn how to succeed beyond standard norms, consistently over the long term, while maintaining well-being and positive relationships. This is the very definition of high performance that leads to a greater level of engagement, joy and confidence that comes from doing your best.

However, when the pursuit of excellence becomes a determination to achieve nothing short of perfection, the trade-off can be costly. At a minimum, it wastes time, which is a valuable resource. It slows progress. It triggers in both the perfectionist and those working with them a continual feeling of being “not good enough,” which leads to low self-esteem. It feeds negative thought patterns.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Scott, if you wonder whether you are a perfectionist, you probably are. Here are ten signs to consider:

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking
  • Being Highly Critical
  • Feeling Pushed by Fear
  • Having Unrealistic Standards
  • Focusing Only on Results
  • Feeling Depressed by Unmet Goals
  • Fear of Failure
  • Procrastination
  • Defensiveness
  • Low Self-Esteem

What may be surprising is that the need for control demonstrates a sense of insecurity and lack of confidence. And this can be difficult to overcome.

When I help micro-managers to change their behavior pattern, we follow these steps:

  1. It all starts with creating the right mindset: get clear about why you want to change. What’s your motivation?
  2. Determine how you want to be perceived and set a clear intention to move in that direction. What behaviors are required?
  3. Set clear priorities about what is most important. What can you let go?
  4. To curb the perfectionist tendencies, get comfortable taking risks. Start small and build up. Where can you start?
  5. Practice delegating tasks to others. Use my 7 Steps Framework to delegate with confidence.

If you want to be an effective leader, The Perfection Trap is a tendency you need to overcome. And, if you want help with this or other self-defeating behaviors, let’s talk!

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