How to Avoid Perfectionism at Work
Written by Dave Bailey
Overcoming perfectionist tendencies is a challenge every leader faces. Here's how to strike a balance between doing enough and avoiding over-committing.
What’s the most common answer to the question, ‘What’s your biggest weakness?’ Of course, it’s, ‘I’m a bit of a perfectionist.’ For many of us, perfectionism is a humble brag. My only fault is that I’m too perfect.
My friends call me a perfectionist. And they’re right. As someone who works with a lot of founders—and as a founder myself—I’ve discovered that 90% of us are perfectionists. For the longest time, I wore it as a badge of honour—a validation of the high standards I set for myself.
But this changed when I took Brené Brown’s course on Brave Leadership.
Confessions of a Perfectionist
Striving for perfection is a good thing, right?
According to Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, it depends. Brené distinguishes perfectionism from ‘healthy striving’ by the questions we ask ourselves. When we’re striving, our attention is focused on the question, ‘What am I trying to achieve?’
However, perfectionism is characterised by a different question . . . and a different focus:
‘What will they think?’
Perfectionism is a psychological shield, protecting us from the painful feeling of not being good enough. As I listened to Brené talk, I found myself nodding. She had me down pat.
How Perfectionism Plays Out In Startups
With this new perspective on perfectionism, a lot of the common mistakes I see in startups became clearer. Perfectionism drives many of the decisions that ultimately hold our startups back.
See if any of these examples resonate with you.
1) Early Product Releases vs. Building More Features
The benefits of launching an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) are widely promoted in startup culture. An MVP provides you with early data from real users and gives you a chance to discover whether customers actually want the product. And it can even let you achieve faster success by demonstrating that sometimes, minimal is actually good enough.
When you speak with founders who have held off on a release until more features were ready, you often hear the same thing: ‘We’re worried about making a bad impression on our early users and losing them forever.’ As Reid Hoffman of Greylock Partners says, ‘If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.’
2) Sending Investor Updates vs. Waiting for Progress
There are lots of advantages to keeping your existing investors—and potential future investors—updated. Regular updates demonstrate that you’re serious, transparent and professional. They help you build trust, which is the foundation of a long-term relationship. And they open you up to serendipity, which is the birthplace of coincidence.
And the most common reason for founders not keeping investors up-to-date? ‘We want to come back to them when we have more progress to show.’
These founders forget that strong relationships have closed more rounds than slow progress ever did.
3) Early Employee Feedback vs. Holding Back
Early feedback is good for everyone involved. It helps people stay accountable to their goals. It provides useful information for the receiver of the feedback, who wants to succeed in their job. And it stops little things becoming big things, which end up demanding much more of your time.
And what typically holds us back from delivering this feedback to employees? ‘I don’t want to hurt their feelings, or for them to want to leave right now.’ So the behaviours you’re unhappy with persist and nothing improves.
How to Treat Perfectionism
It takes one to know one, as they say, and these examples were inspired by my own mistakes. The desire to look perfect, act perfect and be perfect stopped me from launching earlier, having difficult conversations sooner, and staying in touch with people that mattered.
But there is good news! Brené has some ideas to help you move from perfectionism to healthy striving.
Step 1: Reframe the Story
Underneath perfectionism lies the fear that we’re not good enough. It’s a story we all tell ourselves sometimes. The first step of getting out of the perfectionist mindset is to replace this story with a new one:
‘I am enough’
‘We are enough.’
This subtle shift in mindset can have a radical impact. When we are secure and confident in ourselves, we inspire security and confidence in the people around us.
Step 2: Reframe the Question
Whenever we catch ourselves worrying about what others may think, it’s time to get back to why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place:
‘What am I trying to achieve?’
‘What are we trying to achieve?’
These questions draw out our intentions. Refocusing on our goals—to validate a product, to build strong relationships with investors, and to help our teammates grow and succeed — can give us the courage to act, even at the risk of being unpopular.
Many successful startups have the mantra, ‘done is the enemy of perfect’, and I’ve come to believe it’s true.
So, next time you’re called a perfectionist, pause and reflect. Are you aligned with your goals? Are you paying too much attention to the critics?
Take a deep breath. It’s time to be a little more courageous.
Continue reading about startup leadership:
- Want to be a good leader? Win the approval of your team by mastering these vulnerable leadership do’s and don’ts.
- Are you struggling to manage your team? Learn about the weakness of strength approach to leadership.
- Struggling with conflict management as a leader? Read this in-depth guide to nonviolent communication at work.
Originally published Mar 25, 2019, last updated Jul 26, 2023
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