Michelangelo meticulously crafted the Pietà sculpture. Some say it’s among his best works. But one day, he used a sledgehammer to deliberately damage its arm and leg. Were there defects in the marble? Was the stone too hard? Was the chisel too blunt? Some speculate he was frustrated and wanted it to be perfect. Sound familiar?
Do you write endless iterations of a presentation or proposal? Do you pore over an email, spend hours on a Tweet or strive to curate the perfect Instagram pose? If so, you might be a perfectionist. When I advise leaders about the commercial consequences of perfectionism, many recognize it but still struggle. I understand—I'm guilty of producing dozens of presentation drafts. Many of us hold ourselves to impossible standards and fixate on imperfections or, worse, the imperfections of others. However, this can be controlled.
A Spectrum Of Perfection
Perfectionism is a personality trait that manifests itself in endless striving to live up to often unrealistic and idealistic expectations. Leaders who are perfectionists might cling to the illusion of control or be driven by a deep-rooted fear of failure. You might be the person who wants to be perfect, wants others to be perfect or wants your nation, society or organization to be perfect.
Precision and perfection matter in industries such as engineering, aviation, law or medicine where detail orientation drives essential levels of customer safety, patient well-being, legal accuracy and operational efficiency. Adherence to exacting standards in research and development can inspire innovation, space missions, next-generation cures and architectural excellence.
But in matters of business, literature and media, artistic "perfection" is a form of self-expression that’s open to subjective interpretation rather than objective expression. Consider Michael Jackson, for instance: According to Rolling Stone, Jackson said he was "never satisfied" and believed in perfection. Even when a song reached No. 1, he would criticize what he should have done differently.
While being a perfectionist might help you deliver high-quality work, it can also carry a few pitfalls.
The Pitfalls Of Perfectionism
When I work with organization leaders, few see how this trait can exact a high professional and personal price. Several hidden challenges exist:
• Unmet personal expectation: It’s easy to feel down when reality scuppers a well-laid-out plan. When this happens, perfectionists might experience feelings of anxiety, lower self-esteem and defensiveness.
• Extensive deliberations: Perfectionists who hold extremely high expectations might irritate, delay or demotivate colleagues. Some can ruminate for a long time without resolving a dilemma. For example, Apple's Steve Jobs, who Inc. said "was once an adamant perfectionist," deliberated about furniture for eight years for his new home because he was seeking the perfect choice, his wife explained in the book Steve Jobs (via the New Yorker).
• Hampered productivity: Perfectionism can be an enemy of productivity. Spending more time on a project doesn’t necessarily improve the outcome. My former boss used to say, "Done is better than perfect." He was right. Many perfectionists micromanage and struggle to prioritize what matters, especially when feedback is interpreted as criticism.
• Ethical misjudgment: Under pressure, some perfectionists might think the only way to maintain perfection is to compromise ethics. Cyclist Lance Armstrong, for example, denied taking performance-enhancing drugs for two decades and then admitted it. He attributed his denial to the pressure of maintaining a perfect "fairy tale image."
Three Signs You’re A Perfectionist
Perhaps you relate to perfectionism because you recognize it in others, but less so in yourself. You might tell yourself you’re professional—anything else would suggest imperfection, after all. Friends or colleagues might point it out, but you dismiss them. Or, perhaps you see perfectionism as a virtuous commitment to greatness. Three tell-tale signs can help you spot it in yourself:
• Unrealistic standards: In my experience, perfectionists tend to be maximizers, not satisficers. Innovator James Dyson, who is often described as a perfectionist, built 5,127 prototypes and spent 15 years perfecting the first upright vacuum cleaner. Beware, as obsessively pursuing goals can also have a dark side.
• Unwilling to accept 'good enough': To some perfectionists, mistakes can feel like a complete disaster. There’s no room for good enough—only perfect. When Titanic movie director James Cameron learned that the stars were misaligned in one part of the film, he reshot the scene.
• Excessive procrastination: Perfectionists often get stuck in a cycle of procrastinating. Studies show that some forms of perfectionism predict both procrastination and life satisfaction. Many people postpone making wills, changing jobs or saving for retirement because "the time is never quite right." Sometimes, perfectionism also just hides indecision.
How To Control Perfectionism
Individuals can adopt several strategies to manage their perfectionism:
1. Recalibrate what matters: Recognize when you or your team have reached the point of diminishing returns. Extra hours on an article, pitch, presentation or email can be well-spent—but only if it generates sufficient business impact. Focus on marginal gains, and adjust the benchmark as appropriate.
2. Nurture self-compassion. Most situations are not life-or-death cases. Be kind to yourself, as striving for the impossible is exhausting and a source of inevitable disappointment. Perspective gives you a psychological distance.
3. Embrace imperfection. Psychologist Elliot Aronson suggests making mistakes such as spilling coffee or stumbling can make a person more approachable and less austere. Richard Shotton reported in WARC a survey that found 66% of consumers even prefer jagged cookies to perfectly round ones.
4. Set realistic standards. Find the middle ground between high-performance goals and mediocrity. Don’t wear perfectionism as a badge of honor. Success is about subjective standards. Don’t demotivate others by imposing unrealistic standards.
Perfectionism can be a professional and personal pitfall. Ironically, I believe it merely proves the existence of human imperfection. There’s no need to smash your own sculpture. In the process, you could destroy value not just for yourself but also for those around you.