Last week, I was leading a leadership workshop with a group of top female corporate executives and the subject came up, as it does every time I do this kind of work:
perfectionism.

You know, the feeling that no job (or even email) can't benefit from another tweak. And the crazy-making corollary that no matter how conscientious you are, it's never quite enough.

For most of these women--and this is true whether I'm working with women in corporate life or entrepreneurs--this topic is personal. Even when their feelings are conflicted about whether perfectionism is actually a problem or just the cost of being good at your job.

"But I'm known for delivering quality work," one of the execs spontaneously cried out. I heard her, because that was me twenty or so years ago.

Perfectionism: from the cradle to the C-Suite.

There is a library's worth of sociological research that confirms what most of us already know: girls and boys are often raised with a different set of expectations, even in progressive-seeming families and schools where those expectations are unspoken or even unconscious. Girls are rewarded for being "good," as in diligent and obedient, and boys are prized for having an adventurous spirit.

As Sally Helgesen points out in her book How Women Rise, those norms get reinforced in the work world when young women are hired for junior positions and attention to detail is often exactly what's required (yes, that PowerPoint does have to be perfect). But as you rise up to more senior positions, qualities like positivity, creative thinking, and bold decision making are prized.

That's when women--entrepreneurs and corporate up-and-comers alike--get caught in the perfectionism trap, leading teams and overseeing big projects with the same dot-the-i, cross-the-t mentality that simply isn't possible to sustain without driving you and the people who work under you crazy. (As Helgesen likes to say in her talks, "No one ever said, 'I love working for a perfectionist.'")

Looking in the mirror: how to recognize perfectionism.

Perfectionism can justify itself endlessly, but if you take a hard look, you'll probably recognize a few signs.

Over-planning, over-engineering, and a perceived need for "just one more revision" (especially when there's a premium on timeliness) are all signs. Alisa Cohn, a top executive coach who works with startups in New York City, shared with me a story about working with a CEO who initiated regular team meetings, which should have been a good thing, but he spent more time capturing and sharing the content than on the content itself.

Getting more comfortable tweaking finished work than sending it out for a thumbs-up or down is, in other words, procrastination, or just plain fearfulness, masquerading as perfectionism.

Here are a few ways you can recognize and combat perfectionism:

  1. Pause and critically examine the requirements of a given task.Should it be a showcase for your best? Or is pretty good good enough? Ask yourself, what's important now (WIN)? As the saying goes, sometimes perfect is the enemy of good.

  2. Get feedback from your team. Maybe you engineered this project to death and it didn't matter. Or maybe it did. Feedback loops move you from what you think is expected of you as leader to what your team, and the client, really needs.
  3. Jettison the idea that you're only as good as your last project. That's the kind of pressure that will burn you out, and your team.

Playing the long game means being able to accept that the occasionally less-than-perfect outcome is a learning opportunity, not the end of the world. And when something does turn out especially great, celebrate it. 

Published on: Feb 1, 2019
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