Women in Leadership: Is Perfectionism Holding You Back?

A lot of women are perfectionists, and in some situations, it's a real plus. Perfectionists aim high and strive to give of their best. More often than not, they get whatever they are doing right. But at what cost?

What is it that successful women do differently? A piece in the Sunday Times offered a few tips, and one of them rang a loud bell with me. "They take imperfect action", said Jacqueline Frost of Women in Business Superseries.

I confess: I am a perfectionist. I'm the sort of person who feels they need to read every email every day. As such, I put myself under enormous pressure. When I get stressed, that perfectionism can take control of me. What is a useful attribute becomes a nightmare. You can become paralysed if you feel you have to do everything immediately and brilliantly.

A lot of women are perfectionists, and in some situations, it's a real plus. Perfectionists aim high and strive to give of their best. More often than not, they get whatever they are doing right. But at what cost? I wonder if they are aware of the effect their perfectionism has on other people - and on their own potential as leaders.

Perfectionists are usually most hard on themselves, which affects their confidence. They never let up about what they haven't done, rather than focusing on what they have done. This affects the way they put themselves forward: they'll say, 'I still need X' or 'I don't have experience of Y'. Men seem less likely to let such things hold them back.

It affects your behaviour - you may become more brittle, less easy to deal with. If your expectations are high, you may find delegation difficult. Perfectionists can become controlling and inflexible, and if they expect others to meet their exacting standards, they may also grow quite cynical. It's a form of competitiveness, but so often turned inwards that it can leave you perpetually frustrated.

It also affects their leadership presence. This is very much about language, your internal critic, your mood and emotional responses. In my experience, perfectionists have such a massive internal critic, it can even affect the space they occupy - they almost shrink into themselves, making themselves smaller. To an outsider, that comes across as a lack of presence.

It can also come with an ultra-conformist streak - doing and being seen to do something right may override your instinct to go against the norm, to be 'real'. But where does this leave creativity or the invaluable lessons that can be won from falling flat on your face?

I also view it as an old-fashioned form of leadership, out of step with the current reality. The world is more complex. If you are a perfectionist, how can you hope to control it without being overwhelmed?

"The wicked problems we face in business, in society and in our personal lives are so challenging because they are both unsolved and unstructured," writes Jennifer Riel of Rotman School of Management. There is rarely one right answer to such problems.

Persuasive leaders show a willingness to work with others and draw opposing sides together to come up with the best solution. Think about the way the tech industry works: so often, products are launched in beta - imperfect - so that 'the crowd' can contribute to their refinement.

Conscious leadership means being self-aware enough to tackle your own perfectionism when it turns against you. I've learnt to manage mine through a combination of things such as mindfulness, centreing, and keeping a journal. These can help you understand what triggers it. You may not recognise it as perfectionism, just feeling uneasy and uncomfortable about your new role or situation.

It often means reviewing and revising your 'conditions of satisfaction': can you give 100% (or even 80%) instead of your usual 120% here?

Being open and lighthearted about it can stop your perfectionism alienating others, particularly fellow women. A (well-judged) joke at your own expense is a reminder that you're an ordinary mortal; it makes you approachable, as Lucy Kellaway observes.

The real skill is knowing when it's valuable, and when it's not. We all want to excel, but as with most things in life, there needs to be room for trade-offs and compromise, flexibility and (a word many of us dread) failure. In other words, room for other people. After all, my idea of perfect may not be yours.

(Photo credit: Creative Commons/Fluctuationmyowndevice)