I've coached a lot of leaders over the years and personally witnessed some truly counter-productive leadership behaviors. Some examples:
- Leaders that lack the self-awareness to solicit feedback and consult different perspectives before making the right decision.
- Leaders with plenty of bravado and charisma, but not an ounce of that super rare trait of the strongest leaders: humility.
- Leaders who flex their power muscle through coercion, force and disregard for people while neglecting the new power model of success.
But there's one specific trait that demands the spotlight here for all the wrong reasons. I've seen it hold leaders back, kill collaboration, and derail teams. There's only one word for it...
Perfectionism is the type of behavior that will silently poison a team. It runs around with its partner-in-crime -- denial -- most of the time. Perfectionism shows up in self-defeating thought patterns and unhealthy actions that, unless one is willing to self-diagnose and claim ownership for it's train-wreck effects, will continue to do its damage.
To get down to specifics, lets look at how it typically derails productivity and morale. Here are 7 traits of people with perfectionist tendencies:
1. They can't handle failure.
A perfectionist sets goals or standards so high, they are often unrealistic. When they can't achieve their very best (according to their unreachable standards), they may give up on an important task. If a colleague does something better than them, they feel that they've failed and have a difficult time bouncing back. They may also conceal their mistakes from others, since there's shame attached to their sense of failure.
2. They play it safe.
A perfectionist fears taking risks when performing a task or solving a problem because if they do, there is no guarantee they can do it to perfection. The risk-freer approach, to the detriment of the team, is to stick with safer tasks they are sure they can get done. Studies have found perfectionists to be risk-averse, which can inhibit innovation and creativity.
3. They're only interested in the results.
Perfectionists don't enjoy the process of learning something new, trying new things, collaborating with people or considering someone else's ideas. This comes from having an unhealthy attachment to others' opinions. They feel that if their flaws are exposed, other people on the team will reject them. In turn, they become obsessively focused and only care about the result.
4. They fail to delegate.
Since perfectionists worry about other people not doing the task "as perfect" as them, you'll find them having a difficult time delegating away tasks to people who may actually be as competent as they are.
5. They are classic procrastinators.
Since perfectionists worry incessantly about doing something imperfectly, they freeze up, get "analysis paralysis," and fail to do anything at all. It gets worse if the form of perfectionism is motivated by social approval (i.e., the anticipation of disapproval from others). Studies indicate this type of perfectionism is linked with the tendency to put off tasks.
6. They have a hard time truly connecting with others.
Dr. Brené Brown, research professor and bestselling author, says perfectionism is nothing more than a form of armor she calls a "20-ton shield" that we carry around to protect ourselves from getting hurt -- but in most cases, that shield simply prevents us from truly connecting with others. Brown tells Oprah Winfrey, "When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun -- and fear is the annoying back seat driver." Brown says perfectionism is a destructive way of thinking that says, "'If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule.'"
7. They struggle with black and white thinking.
Perfectionists tend to think or do things in extremes. They may only throw themselves into a new project or task if they know there's a good chance they can succeed. If there's a risk of failure involved, they won't even bother. Life is an all or nothing game. When a perfectionist sets his mind to something, his powerful drive will steamroll ahead (and over people) and stop at nothing to accomplish that goal.
Have I described you, or someone you know? Here are some positive changes perfectionists can make to improve their relationships and work environment.
- Set realistic goals -- short and long-term -- and break them down into smaller goals: weekly, daily or even hourly goals.
- Ask yourself, "Did I set the bar too high? Your emotions may be telling you that you're trying to hit an unrealistic target, which may lead to self-sabotage.
- Don't fear failure. Look at your mistakes as a part of the learning journey -- your professional development evolution. I love this quote from Elbert Hubbard:
"The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one."
- Identify those self-imposed, rigid rules you live by, and reword them so they're more flexible and forgiving.
- Be careful of using black-and-white thinking or verbalizing these thoughts; it will often lead to unrealistic expectations. Ask yourself, "Am I thinking in terms of extremes?"