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Jul 7, 2007
Perfectionism: Too much of a good thing

March 10, 2008

There are many seemingly virtuous characteristics that sabotage up-and-comers as they move into leadership roles - but, above all, managers should beware "the perils of perfectionism," says a team of Toronto-based organizational psychologists.

The drive, diligence and attention to detail that often gets people promoted does not automatically make them great leaders. Indeed, those managers who wear their perfectionism like a badge of honour can be the among the most difficult to work with, Richard Davis and Guy Beaudin of the consulting firm RHR International said in a webcast for executive clients last week.

Their standards are too high for themselves, or anyone else, to meet. They get bogged down in detail, have trouble making decisions, can't - or won't - delegate, and focus more on avoiding failure than striving for success, the psychologists said.

Peers and subordinates do not like working with them, according to recent research on performance appraisal ratings for workaholics and perfectionists in leadership positions, Dr. Davis said.

And if they don't change course, they will derail their careers.

"Our work in leadership development ... often brings us into the areas of leadership derailers, where leadership strengths hit overdrive and become a leadership liability," Dr. Beaudin said.

"There are many such examples: independence can very quickly become aloofness when it is over-exaggerated, or creativity can sometimes veer into chaos," Dr. Beaudin said.

"But more than any other derailer we see in our clients, [the most common] is the one where diligence becomes perfectionism, with many negative leadership consequences," he said.

Dr. Davis said Martha Stewart, a self-described "maniacal perfectionist," was likely motivated by her need to "present as perfect" when she lied to United States government officials about her knowledge of improper stock trades. As a result, she was ousted as head of her company and jailed for five months.

On a less dramatic scale, he said, perfectionist bosses hamper their own performance, and that of others, because of their rigidity and inability to admit - or tolerate - mistakes.

Some participants in the webcast noted that they had achieved considerable success because of their high standards and perfectionist tendencies.

There is nothing wrong with having high standards, the psychologists responded. It's when they set impossible standards that it becomes a problem.

There is a difference between "healthy strivers" and perfectionists, Dr. Davis said.

Healthy strivers set high standards, but "just beyond reach." They bounce back from failure "quickly and with energy." They keep any natural anxiety or fear of failure, that most people suffer from time to time, "within bounds." And they learn from mistakes, which they regard as an opportunity to learn and move forward, Dr. Davis said.

Perfectionists, on the other hand, "set standards beyond reach or reason." They are never satisfied with anything less than perfection. They get stuck when they experience failure or disappointment and become overly defensive when criticized, he said. Mistakes are viewed as evidence of personal failure - there is no room for the trial and error than can often lead to growth, innovation and improved performance.

Perfectionist managers are poor at delegating because they do not trust anyone else to do the job as well, or they take back work they had already assigned "because it is not up to their standards, as opposed to coaching people through the work," Dr. Beaudin said.

"I see a lot of perfectionists who end up being swamped with work and they don't quite know how they got there."

Star performers who are promoted to leadership positions "really need to look" at those aspects of their working styles that no longer serve them well, Dr. Beaudin said.

"There is a real change when your impact is much broader than being a single contributor."

Are you a perfectionist?

Source: RHR International, a Toronto-based firm of organizational psychologists

Self-directed perfectionists:

When working on something, cannot relax until it is perfect.

Aim to be perfect in everything they do.

Set impossibly high standards for themselves.

Feel acutely uncomfortable when they find an error in their work.



Insist that everything done by others be of top-notch quality.

Have high expectations of the people who are important to them.

Get frustrated with people who don't strive to better themselves.

If they ask someone to do something, expect it to be done flawlessly.



Find it difficult to meet others' expectations of them.

Feel that the better they do, the better they are expected to do.

Fear anything they do that is less than excellent will be regarded as "poor work."

Feel that people are too demanding of them.

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