The Problem with Perfectionists

The relationship between creativity and perfectionism is a complex one. Scratch beneath the surface and most of the ‘greats’ in any creative field were probably perfectionists. From Beethoven to Kubrick, from Michelangelo to Gehry – the quest for perfection has led to some of the most astonishing feats of human endeavour and creative masterpieces throughout history.

But extreme perfectionism comes at a high personal price.  Ironically psychologists call it ‘flawed thinking’ and it leads to an ‘all or nothing’ outlook that allows no margins for error, leaving its sufferers highly prone to anxiety. Plagued by feelings of inadequacy, perfectionists will continue to strive for impossible ideals. As so tragically dramatised in the film Black Swan, the obsessive pursuit of perfection can be highly destructive. For every realised masterpiece there is a Magnum Opus that never saw the light of day because of the artists’ fears of not attaining their own impossibly high standards. Michelangelo smashed up his last great statue, Duomo Pieta, out of frustration at what he perceived as its flaws. As Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

But despite its many negative aspects, there is no doubt that the pursuit of perfection can lead to extraordinary achievements. As such, being ‘a perfectionist’ is still revered in creative circles. But here’s the rub – whilst perfectionists can make great creatives and artists – can perfectionists also make great creative leaders?

In truth, whilst the constant quest for mastery of your craft may have fuelled your success as a creative, it can undermine the excellence that you set out to achieve once you become a leader. And therein lies the paradox of perfectionism. Whilst high standards are desirable, when these become extreme they can have a crippling impact, not just on you but on those around you too. Whilst you may be prepared to suffer for your art, it may not be productive to have everyone else suffering with you. As such, you need to recognise when your perfectionistic thinking might be getting out of hand.

How to spot extreme perfectionism in yourself

  • Do you work excessive hours ‘getting the job done properly’ because you can’t trust anyone else to get it right?
  • Does your personal life suffer because you can’t switch off and you drive yourself to distraction obsessing over every detail?
  • Is nothing ever good enough or anything other than fleetingly satisfying?
  • Do decisions often cause you a great deal of angst, in case you make a mistake?

If you can answer yes to any of these, there’s a chance that the perfectionist in you is running riot and this can have serious implications for your team and your business. Whilst completely overcoming a perfectionistic trait is unlikely, and possibly not even desirable, there are strategies you can employ to help keep it in check.

Keep it real

It is often a struggle for those around a perfectionist to live up to their lofty ideals. This is a big problem for leaders who set the bar so high that their team feel doomed to fail before they even start. The key is to strive for excellence rather than perfection. When James Cameron was once accused of being a perfectionist, he replied, “No, I’m a greatist.  I only want to do it until it’s great.”

As a leader you have to embrace pragmatism, so learning to pick your battles is half the battle. Adopt Pareto’s 80/20 approach by focusing your teams’ efforts on the 20% that will have the biggest impact and don’t sweat the rest. Sometimes good enough really is good enough.

As famous perfectionist, Barbra Streisand once said, “Perfection is cold. Imperfection has humanity in it.”

Let it go, let it go...

Perfectionists often find it hard to relinquish control for fear that others can’t deliver to their exacting standards. This can mean they micro-manage in order to keep a tight leash on projects. If this is you, then your biggest risk is that you create a culture of ‘learned helplessness’. If experience teaches your team that independent thought and expression is pointless, then (if they don’t leave first) they will eventually stop thinking for themselves – a disaster when your product is ideas.

Steve Jobs is a modern day icon for the success that can be achieved by obsessive perfectionism but it is widely acknowledged that his style of leadership was disempowering and punishing for those that worked for him.

Conversely, the most effective leaders tend to be those that create a culture of empowerment and trust. As business writer Daniel Pink says, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”

So build team confidence and motivation by delegating effectively. Set a clear vision for what you hope to achieve, then let your team figure out how to get there. You can help if needed but your primary aim should be to inspire and guide, rather than control and correct.  Importantly, you will be teaching your team to take responsibility for themselves, so the world doesn’t fall apart next time you have a day off.

Enjoy the journey

Perfectionism is a serious matter. It is so focused on attaining something that’s always out of reach, there’s rarely any joy in the journey. Consequently, there is little recognition and reward for those around a perfectionist, which can be demotivating for the team who never get to relish any sense of achievement.

Furthermore, because perfectionists often focus on problems and weaknesses, rather than strengths and opportunities, this can create a highly negative climate – stifling the very creativity and innovation that they set out to achieve.  Sometimes called the ‘Golem Effect’, a perfectionist’s expectation of sub-par work from their team becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As such, perfectionistic leaders need to consciously reward progress rather than end goals.  Encouraging your team by acknowledging the little wins and milestones on the path to something great is far more likely to lead to success than relentlessly flogging them down the road to something unobtainable.

Move fast and break things

Procrastination is one of the worst crimes of leadership, as a lack of speed can destroy a business. Unfortunately, perfectionists often struggle with decision-making as they fear making mistakes. But as Zuckerberg’s motto attests, if you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not moving fast enough. So try adopting the Silicon Valley mantra of ‘fail fast, learn quickly’ and support your team to keep moving forward, collectively learning from mistakes as they go. As the saying goes, ‘Any decision is better than no decision’, so instead of obsessing about getting it wrong, ask yourself, ‘Does this decision move things on?’.  It may not be perfect but if it’s progress, just do it.  As George Eliot once said, “The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men [or women for that matter].”  

There’s no doubt about it, having high standards delivers great work and striving for brilliance often pays off.  As Peter Sims says in his book Little Bets, “being rigorous about spotting flaws and continuing to push towards excellence is essential to creative achievement”. But, as he also goes on to say, the most effective leaders never “allow perfectionism to paralyse the creative process”.

So ask yourself this question – are you creating an environment in which your team can succeed or an environment in which they can’t fail? If you aim high, then learning to embrace imperfection may be the toughest thing you ever do, but creating a culture in which your team can thrive may just be your masterpiece.

Tanya Livesey