Your company’s purpose is clear and inspiring. You are passionate about your work and believe the difference your company makes in the world justifies the extremely high standards you set for yourself and everyone who works for you.
Some say your expectations are out of reach. In response, you are quick to acknowledge that you are a perfectionist and proud of it. The purpose you are carrying out justifies the way you lead.
What is wrong with this picture? Leaders need to set standards. Yes, of course.
However, your unrealistically high standards for yourself and others can sabotage you and what you are trying to achieve. No matter how worthy your cause, all or nothing thinking and workaholic tendencies, often characteristic of perfectionists, may limit what you achieve in your organization and the world.
Set making progress rather than achieving perfection as your goal and you will increase your success in carrying out your purpose.
Why Perfectionism Isn’t Sustainable
Perfectionistic tendencies may work for you short term. However, the pursuit of unachievable standards will be your downfall ultimately.
The Burden of Perfectionism is Too Heavy
The definition of perfection is ” the state of being complete and correct in every way.” Perfectionism is “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” That, my friends, is a heavy burden to carry.
Psychology Today says either the desire for achieving lofty goals, an acute fear of failure, or a combination of the two drive perfectionists.
Probably most of you purpose-driven leaders fall into the “lofty goals” category. Certainly, achievement motivation is healthier than fear of failure.
Nevertheless, unrealistically high standards and expectations can impede your leadership, no matter what the underlying reason.
No One Can Meet Perfectionists’ Standards
Purpose-driven perfectionists can rarely live up to the standards they set. They fall short partly because the yardstick they use to measure performance is unworkable in the first place. And if they come within striking distance of their initial criteria, they move the goalposts.
No achievement is ever good enough.
These exceedingly high benchmarks are difficult enough for perfectionists themselves, and if they expect others to live up to the same, they are in danger of constant disappointment. They are likely to drive out of the company even the most dedicated employees.
Over a decade ago, The Journal of Personality published a study showing how passion for one’s work can lead to burnout. They pointed out that the work can become an obsession pushing out other essential aspects of life.
These findings are more significant now as the world and careers become increasingly complex.
The danger for purpose-driven leaders is in identifying so strongly with their work that they neglect family, friends, and other pursuits that make them healthy human beings.
In her book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, Helen Petersen argues if you love your work, you may want to do it all the time. This unrelenting level of effort isn’t sustainable over the long term.
She argues the desirability of “lovable jobs” seems to justify the tendency to work constantly.
Workaholism is a compulsion resembling addiction. It can become emotionally crippling, not to mention how it squelches creativity and clear thinking.
Perfectionism Takes a Heavy Toll
Like other obsessions or addictions, perfectionism creates unnecessary handicaps for the perfectionist.
If your actions suggest anything less than flawless is unacceptable, you are a perfectionist. And your mental health is at risk. Most likely you feel guilty most of the time as you fail to meet the impossible standards you desire.
Anxiety and Depression
Perfectionists tend to feel anxious and depressed. These conditions often lead to their jumping from job to job.
Sometimes they adopt all or none thinking, and rather than working feverishly, they revert to minimal work. Unsurprisingly, their performance drops precipitously.
Taking it Out on Others
They are likely to project their guilt and anxiety onto others. Consequently, they overreact to what they perceive as the shortcomings of employees and colleagues.
How to Handle Your Perfectionist Tendencies
If you see any perfectionist tendencies in yourself, take steps to address what can lead to dysfunction or failure.
Look Inward for Causes
The purpose-driven perfectionist is unlikely to understand the root of their problems. Therefore, their first line of attack should be to reflect and explore what might be leading to unrealistic and self-destructive mind frames.
The mindsets can come from unrealistic fears of failure. Perhaps parents and others held unrealistic expectations for you when you were a child.
For example, did your parents show great disappointment in you if you didn’t bring home a school report card with straight A’s? If you can relate, know you can let go of those old wounds. Put them behind you. And get help if you need it.
Raising awareness of how these tendencies started is a step in addressing them.
Recognize the Lack of Alignment with Your Values
Note that the results of perfectionistic behaviors could be contrary to your values.
If you say you value caring relationships, working all the time at the expense of your family and friends doesn’t jive. Nor does expecting too much of your employees and then slamming them when they don’t achieve your impossible standards fit how you view yourself.
Work to bring your behaviors in line with what you say you value most.
Understand that Passion for Life is Compatible with Passion for Work
Work to give up your all or none beliefs. Commit to practicing “good enough.” Try it out for a week or a month to see how you feel.
Most likely, you will discover that your work didn’t fall apart, nor did you fail. You probably became more productive.
Winston Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” Indeed.
The belief that your performance must be flawless will inhibit your success. Perfectionism can be paralyzing.
Think about it. You can take pride in your progress or suffer guilt for continuously failing to meet impossible standards. The choice is yours. And your ability to carry out a purpose depends on your making the right one.