Perfection - brene brown

Perfectionism: short-term gains, long-term liabilities

M – “I get consistent feedback during appraisals that I am excellent at business, but not in leadership. How can you help me overcome this?”

That’s how M introduced her leadership challenge to me in our first consultation call. I was curious about makes this challenge so important for her to resolve now?

M – “I am changing companies, joining a competitor but this time I want to start the job being intentional about my leadership and not the business acumen. I’ve avoided facing the ‘leadership defect’ in me for far too long. I can see my professional growth stagnating if I don’t get a fix on my leadership – but the what and the how of it eludes me.”

A bit of background. Having spent 20 plus years in the technology industry, M had straddled the hustle of being part of building start-ups to running a business vertical for a major global technology company. While she aspired to have a long stint in one company and rise to more strategic leadership roles, every 3-4 years she was compelled to change companies. Why? Always the one to miss out on a promotion.

M – “How can someone like me be excellent in achieving business goals and not lead effectively – this contradiction is not sitting well with me? At first I thought my boss assessed me unfairly, but then realised its not just him, many others think so.”

Within a few coaching sessions it was clear M was highly driven and focused on attaining results – and her sense of accomplishment, competence and confidence was anchored in demonstrating that muscle.  She was struggling with relationships, team development, and collaboration skills at work.

At one of our sessions I asked – what is that one strength of yours, which when overused is coming in the way of your leadership effectiveness?

But, the opportunities I have got in my career (from an early-stage start-up to the last major tech player) are because of my motivation to excel and am relentless in the pursuit of perfection…

It makes me perform well. It is my single biggest asset and has served me very well.”

So to understand her better I asked to paint scenarios in her unique work context.

1. What did perfection look like when it was used as strength?

2. What is the experience her peers/ team have when she is donning her ‘perfectionist identity’? What are the liabilities associated with perfectionism.

Our deep dive exploration into these questions revealed the following:

M’s list of perfection as a strength:

“I consistently seek and expect my team to come up with ideas to improve our product, processes, client engagement. Doing it the same way is not good enough for me.”

“I land up by getting great feedback from clients as well – it helps the business because I care about what resonates and is convenient for the client.”

“When I set high standards, it influences others to not coast along and strive for more.”

“I create results that are extra-ordinary for the business and the company.”

“My way of doing things sets me apart from my peers and I am recognised for it.”

M’s list of perfection and its liabilities:

“My boss once said that my time and energy is disproportionately spent. I focus on trying to ensure every piece of the job done is so perfect, that I don’t spend as much energy focusing on the strategic ways I could add value.“

“Also this ‘passion for perfection’ means I have a tendency to control rather than delegate. It seems like I don’t trust my direct reports and am not investing in their capability.”

“One direct report said that they don’t really hear from me unless it is something they have messed up on.”

“My peers tell me that I strive so hard for perfection that all my conversations are around eliminating mistakes. Which is apparently impossible.”

“I can become stubborn and unwilling to accept the realistic and practical compromises necessary to get the job done.“

“My team is intimidated by my high standards and seem scared of making mistakes. They start seeing all mistakes as costly.”

So what’s emerging for you, as you see this list, I asked M.

M – “I am discovering a blind spot”.

So far our sessions have allowed M to work on her one blind spot – she so deeply valued and honoured the need for perfection that she was unable to see the liabilities associated with it.

Isn’t perfectionism a desirable trait in leaders? Is it really a blind spot you ask?

Leadership research by Brené Brown, the Leadership Circle and Paul Hewitt and colleagues reveals

  1. Perfectionism does not serve as a healthy motivation towards our striving to be our best or ambitious. Because it is fundamentally motivated by gaining approval, validation and acceptance of others.
  2. Perfectionism robs one of curiosity where mistakes and failures are viewed as opportunities for learning.
  3. It can result in ‘life paralysis’ – the risks we don’t take, and the opportunities we miss because we are too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.
  4. Our self-worth is on the line whenever an imperfection is revealed to the world. And therefore perfectionists fear failure.
  5. Perfection is an unreal and an unreasonable goal. And when entrenched in the pursuit of doing it right, expecting others to do it right – we are being controlled by the perception of others. It is impossible to control the perception of others.

As Brené Brown puts it ‘healthy striving’ is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – What will they think? That’s the shift we are helping leaders make towards creating more thriving leaders and thriving organisations.

(By the way M, and I are doing some deep work in shifting some more blind spots and underlying beliefs that are holding her back. If M gives consent, I will report back on the progress she made).

About Mandira Kala

Mandira is a qualified leadership coach. She is a graduate in Psychology from LSR, New Delhi, MSW from TISS, Mumbai, PhD in Public Policy from University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is passionate about developing leaders who contribute to their workplace by transforming mindsets, creating a culture of cultivating and harnessing people potential, and beating the odds to deliver beyond imagination.

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