Sales Management Digest

How to Let Go of Your Perfectionist Tendencies
Derek Roger, PhD. & Nick Petrie
The idea of perfect control might sound very attractive, but it is in fact a major contributor to people being unhappy at work.

Here are some insights we can share about the characteristics of a perfectionist.
  • Perfectionists just can't see the threshold of added value (the point in the task beyond which you're adding nothing), no matter how much more detail you attend to.
  • Perfectionism is based on the mistaken idea that there is a perfect outcome for the job.
  • Perfectionists never actually achieve this illusory perfection: no matter how much they do, they always feel they haven't done enough.
  • Perfectionists consistently set the bar unrealistically high. Since there is very rarely a perfect outcome, perfectionism provides constant opportunities for them to beat themselves up for having "failed."
Perfect control is driven by emotion—in this case, anxiety. Perfect controllers are anxious about not delivering the perfect outcome, but they're struggling to achieve an ideal. There isn't a perfect result: everything can be improved upon. The consequence of perfectionism is that you'll always feel that you've failed, and the problem is that this attitude generalizes to our expectations of others as well.

As with changing any of our behavior, we first have to recognize that we do it, and that can be difficult because of the way we rationalize what we do. Try telling perfectionists that what they've done so far on a project is good enough; they'll think you're settling.

This is not an argument for cutting corners or accepting substandard work, but rather, it is an approach to tasks that acknowledges the constraints of what can be achieved. In high-pressure environments we're seldom able to spend as long as we would like on any given piece of work, and we're not usually able to just throw more and more money into it. In fact, we don't even need to, since 80 percent of task outcomes are derived from 20 percent of the effort devoted to them.

From a practical perspective, the principle is to do the best you're able to under the circumstances, which is what most people do. The anxiety that drives perfectionism inevitably brings with it is a desire to control everything.

Getting Perspective on Perfectionism

The reality is that the world is an uncertain place, and there's a limit to how much control you have over it. Just consider for a moment how many of the projects you've been involved in have proceeded absolutely smoothly, without any hitches, exactly as you had planned them! We're talking about whether you can deliver a project by a deadline, when there are aspects you can control but others you probably can't, such as your needing to wait for another team to complete their part of the process before you can continue. This is why the final step in the training program, letting go, is particularly relevant for perfect controllers—being able to let go of the need to control what they can't control.

Team leaders have a significant role to play, though it does of course require that they not be perfectionists! Set a clear example for the threshold of added value for your reports, and make it clear that when people go beyond it, they're not only not adding any further value. Rather, they're compromising the delivery of the project.

There is a balance to be struck because you want to ensure that the work does reach the threshold, and it will vary from one situation to another. It might also require drastic action. One of the managers we worked with had several perfect-control people on her team, which had the effect of making the others feel that they too had to act that way. Eventually, she introduced a rule: unless it was absolutely imperative, 5:30 p.m. was the time to go home. Then she would go around actually turning off the lights until they got the message!

Excerpted from Work Without Stress by Derek Roger and Nick Petrie. Copyright 2017. Adapted with permission from McGraw-Hill Professional.
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