What is perfectionism and what does perfectionism look like in the workplace?
Let’s start with perfectionism. Perfectionism, as defined in the science of psychology, is a “broad personality style characterized by a person's concern with striving for flawlessness and perfection and is accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations.”
If your family was anything like mine, being called a perfectionist was quite the compliment — it meant you did good work and met expectations. My grandparents called it a “family trait.” It was laudable.
In the workplace, though, perfectionism might not always be such a great thing. Perfectionism can be unsustainable, and is often at odds with a growth mindset. If you aim for perfection in everything you do, chances are, you’ll do less. If you set out with the goal of an extraordinarily high level of work in every direction, you certainly won’t achieve it — at least, not without burning out first.
Perfectionism versus high standards
Before we get too much further, I want to say that perfectionism is very different from high standards. There’s nothing wrong with high standards, and high standards aren’t the problem we’re discussing here. But high standards do require deliberate prioritization. In the world we live in today, where everything seems to be moving increasingly faster, the concepts of failing and iterating quickly are becoming more important. And perfectionism doesn't always allow for that. In fact, perfectionism can often cause missed deadlines.
A few items to consider when comparing perfectionism to high standards is:
- High standards are driven by doing the right thing and the results you’ll get. Perfectionism is driven by how things will appear and what others will think.
- High standards are attainable. Perfectionism is nearly impossible.
- High standards means learning from failure. Perfectionism is destroyed by failure.
“Striving for excellence motivates you. Striving for perfection is demoralizing.– Harriet Braiker, author of The Disease to Please
It’s a cliche but it’s true: don’t let perfect get in the way of good. Done is better than perfect, especially in fast moving work environments. Done allows you to test and learn things, to see what works and what doesn’t. Perfectionism often gets in the way of progress.
How does perfectionism lead to micromanagement? (and potentially toxic leadership)
As a leader, perfectionism might lead to micromanagement. If you have a tendency towards perfection, you can easily cause your team to slow down or stall out on overpolished deliverables. It might even turn into a situation where you’re redoing or overdoing work for them, all because you push for a standard of work that might not even be necessary. That can create a lack of trust in your team members which, in turn, diminishes efficiency and performance for everyone. At its worst, this cycle can ultimately make your management style “toxic boss.”
This cycle is all too easy for the perfectionist to fall into. I catch myself doing it frequently, even though I don’t consider myself a micromanaging boss. But sometimes, I see one thing that doesn’t quite fit or feel quite right, and I fixate on it. I miss the larger goal that my team was trying to accomplish. And if I make a comment about it, I’m reinforcing and requesting a higher standard than may have been needed to achieve that goal.
Four signs you’re micromanaging your team
— and yourself
Stay on the lookout for these signs of micromanagement.
1. You can’t resist giving feedback
A big one is an inability to bite your tongue. Questions like, “is that the best you can do?” or constant critiques of your team’s work might feel like you’re pushing them to be better, but in reality could be slowing them down.
2. Your praise sounds like “Great job. Now, what can we do better next time?”
If you feel like the next thing must always be better than the last, there’s another sign you might be a micromanaging boss. It means you’re always moving the goalposts, and while your team might feel good about what they accomplished, they will quickly start to feel like their work is never enough.
3. You’re never satisfied with your own performance
Likewise, if you find yourself as a team leader thinking you’re always falling short, that is your perfectionism at play. Often, perfectionists have a hard time enjoying their accomplishments, while others value their significant contributions.
4. You’re expectations are taking their toll mentally
A final, and unfortunate sign of critical perfectionism and micromanagement is if you find yourself anxious, depressed, or burnt out because of the weight of your own expectations. If you’re feeling any of these emotions, it’s time to take a step back and consider how you’ve been affecting not just your team, but yourself.
How To Deal With Micromanagement
If any of the above signs sound familiar, my guess is (unless you’re a complete narcissist) now you’re wondering what you can do about it?
The first, and most important step, is to start prioritizing. Identify what work you and your team are doing that needs to be done well, and what needs to be done quickly. Beyond that, clarify what parts of a project you know need to look a certain way, and what’s more ambiguous. Make certain you have an accountability process and that information is captured and communicated in it.
Practice being okay with ambiguity
Where there’s ambiguity, there’s opportunity to let specific expectations go. If you don’t know what success will ultimately look like, it’s important to let your team move quickly, try things out, and see what happens. Build. Test. Measure. Learn.
Despite what you may think, it’s not a bad thing to have ambiguity around a project or task. In reality, it’s becoming more and more the norm every day. With higher levels of ambiguity, it’s even more important to allow for rapid work, and often rapid failure. Ever heard of the concept “fail fast”? This is exactly what it means.
Make effective requests
Once you’ve identified your priorities and what the work should look like, and what it shouldn’t look like, then it’s time to make an effective request. Be clear with your team about what you know and what you don’t, and where they have autonomy to try new things.
Then the hard part — following through on your request, even if it means letting go of control. Especially in highly ambiguous situations, the tendency for micromanagers is to dig in and control everything they can. Those things they can control aren’t the most important, oftentimes they may even be the least, but they fulfill their desire for perfection. Don’t fall into that trap.
Provide effective feedback
Finally, once the work is done, be mindful of your feedback. If you find yourself making nitpicky comments, or digging in on small issues that don’t impact the broader goal, chances are next time your team will be more worried about those concerns than moving fast to accomplish the larger task. Vice versa, you can reward your team for working quickly and taking risks by focusing on what matters most.
Fast Company put it well… if you feel like you’re trending towards perfectionism, try one (or all) of these mindset shifts: from “everything matters” to “what matters most”; from “the finish line” to “interim milestones”; and from “doing it all” to “doing what we can”.
It’s hard. But it’s a leaders’ job
No one is saying this is easy. Especially in the United States, where everything from our educational system to our grandparents promote polished perfectionism to obsessive standards, (sometimes to the demise of mental health), it can be hard to let go of our biases and judgements in order to focus on a larger but often more ambiguous goal.
But as a leader, you have a responsibility to your team to do so. This doesn’t mean that from time to time you won’t have to roll up your sleeves and get involved in a project. Far from it. But it does mean understanding that the more you do, the less sustainable your effort can be, and the more disheartening and stifling it may be for your team.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. If you are not delegating your tasks and workloads amongst your team, you might have too tight of a grasp on expectations of that work.
A great rule of thumb is if you find yourself taking on projects rather than handing them back to others, you’re heading in the wrong direction. The right direction is giving your team enough time to iterate and try things, even multiple times if necessary, before deliverables are required. Up until the last responsible moment for completion, allow them to continue learning on their own with constructive, meaningful feedback on your part.
And if you truly feel like you know something they don’t, or could provide expertise in an area where they are struggling, ask permission first. “Do you want feedback on this?” is a great place to start. If they accept, respect the way they chose to handle it and provide feedback on their work, don’t just tell them how you would have done it.
Is it possible to reign in a micromanager?
A final note for any of you that might be struggling to work with a micromanaging boss: First and foremost, use the same tools and skills you use with your team to manage up. Make sure you understand what the priorities are and why. Document them, and relay them back to make sure there’s clarity and alignment at all levels. Come back to documented priorities often and check in to make sure they are still applicable over time and haven’t changed.
Here at Lead Belay, we know the impacts perfectionism and micromanagement can have on a team. To combat them, we teach the principles of macromanagement — giving your team autonomy and control to do their best work.