“What’s your biggest weakness?”  This is a question often asked in an interview.  One of the most common answers given is “I am a perfectionist.”  You may think yourself clever when you provide that answer, as it’s often thought of as a good, subtle way to talk about another strength of yours in the guise of a weakness.  Comments that follow may include “I work too hard, and may obsess about details…”

perfectionistThis may be an okay answer for junior positions, but if I was interviewing you for a manager position or an even higher position, I probably won’t hire you if you seem to be proud of being a perfectionist.   This may be harsh, but the more senior I have become in my career, the more I am realizing that being a perfectionist is a true weakness, an addiction that can seriously deter you from achieving your best.

Dr Thurman Fleet explains why perfectionism is a serious weakness in his book, Rays of Dawn:“Individuals who always strive for perfectionism are burdened with superficial and imaginary duties and are constantly submerged in a turmoil of nervous activity…”  Being a recovering perfectionist myself, I know just how true his description is.  Here are five reasons why I think a proud perfectionist would make a poor manager or senior leader:

  1. Perfectionism saps your energy on inconsequential details, like making sure the formatting is perfect, or getting that last piece of missing info.  At the end of the day, ask yourself, “does what I am doing now change my overall conclusion, decision, or recommendation?”  If not, resist the urge to obsess over little details.  It will only waste your time and energy for no good reason, other than a felt need to be perfect — and trust me, that is not a good reason.  Perfection does not equal success.
  2. Perfectionism leaves little time to strategize and prioritize – There are only 24 hours in a day.  No one gets more time.  If you spend too much time on unnecessary details, you won’t have enough mind space to look at the bigger picture.  Strategy, in its essence, is about the willingness to prioritize focusing on a few important things while giving up on the rest.  You cannot do that if you are a perfectionist.
  3. Perfectionism makes you  fault-finding about your team  – Perfectionists hold unrealistic standards, and tend to look at everything from the lens of “what is wrong? What is missing? What could be done better?”  This is not very inspiring to others.  No team member is motivated to work harder or better if you focus too much on what is not perfect about their work.   Everyone has their strengths and developmental needs.  It’s important to always look for the good in people’s abilities, and from there to inspire them to do more.
  4. Perfectionism creates unnecessary stress and worry – Just like a perfectionist may be fault finding with others, they will also be too focused on criticizing themselves.  This creates stress and worry that never helps with their overall career progression.   Striving to always be perfect is a fool’s errand that can only wear you down physically, mentally, and spiritually.  If you are stressed today about work, ask yourself why.  Most stress for overachievers is self-inflicted, based on imagined expectations from unrealistic standards.  Realize this, and free yourself from this unnecessary burden so you can direct 100% of your energy to learning, achieving, and leading!
  5. Perfectionism makes you risk-averse  – To perfectionists, there are only two outcomes in any situation – success or failure.  This is a self-defeating perspective that will keep you from taking any risks in life or at work.  Leadership and success actually require you to take certain risks and be okay with making mistakes.  Mistakes are not failures — they are just experiences that will help you learn and get to the next level.

So, are you a perfectionist?  It’s okay if you say yes.  I know I can still be at times.  The question is: are you aware of it and its effects on you and your work?  Are you doing something about it to make sure it doesn’t drive you off course?  It is important to realize that high quality work does not require perfection.  You only need to do enough to achieve the overall result, and you need to know when to stop and move on.

If you don’t believe my perspective, perhaps a word from a multi-billionaire will help:   Eike Batista, whose net worth is about $30B, once said “Don’t think that the only way your business will work is through perfection.  Don’t aim for perfection. Aim for success.”  I hope you and I will always aim for success, and be okay with any mistakes we make and lessons we learn along the way.  Best wishes to your career success.

Your comments:  Are you a perfectionist? Are you trying to stop being one?  Leave your comments below, and let’s have a discussion.

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I am always in your corner

– Lei

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