Perfectionism & Productivity: Friends or Frenemies?
If you’ve prepared for a job interview, it’s likely that you grappled with the politically astute answer to the question, “What would you say are your weaknesses?”
Our spidey-senses tell us this question is a job-securing minefield, so we struggle for an answer that: 1. Positions us as genuine and thoughtful and 2. Makes us look good. Two answers seem to check both boxes: “I care too much” and “I tend to be a perfectionist."
”Caring too much” feels a little precious, so perfection feels like a pretty good default. But you know what? It’s not. Perfectionism is nothing like it’s cracked up to be.
- It can stop you from getting started on a new project quickly
- It can lead to missed deadlines, obsessive checking, and inefficient use of time
- It can kill strategic agility and leave you in the dust of more ‘progress vs. perfection’-minded organizations
- It can make you an overbearing people manager who sees their way as the only way
And still, it’s common to hear us brand marketers describe ourselves as perfectionists.
The thinking is that perfection signals a striving for excellence: you just won’t settle for anything short of perfect. The problem with shooting for perfection is its impossibility. Setting the perfection bar means sabotaging your own success.
We've worked with brand marketers for over 20 years and seen how counter-productive thoughts can sabotage careers. On the other hand, we've seen how healthy striving can propel them.
Perfectionism is different from healthy striving. As Brené Brown describes in “The Gifts of Imperfection”, healthy striving is internally focused: it is concerned with your own growth and achievement. It answers the question, “How can I improve?” Perfectionism on the other hand, is externally focused: it is concerned with other people’s expectations and answers the question, “What will they think?”
In addition to having an external focus, perfectionism also assumes there is only one correct outcome to a task or situation. This thinking shortchanges the “mistakes” that often lead to valuable learning and growth. Perfectionism smothers innovation and costs people valuable time, money and competitiveness. It can cost you a promotion, a chance to manage other people or a chance to work on increasingly complex and interesting projects.
So how to move away from perfectionism and towards healthy striving?
It comes down to changing your mindset, which sounds easy but of course is not. One powerful technique is called reframing which seeks to reinterpret the way we perceive a situation. It’s a bit like repositioning a brand but in this case, you are actively deciding to reposition your interpretation.
Here’s an example of how reframing can apply to receiving feedback on your work:
- It’s brand planning and your Director has asked you to work on the story about past year performance and lessons learned for the coming year. You spend many hours working on this, sweating over the market share analysis and the written summary of lessons learned. Your Director emails you with her feedback and it’s a long email. It opens with the line, ‘It’s a good start” and then goes on to list all the changes that need to be made before the next brand plan check-in meeting. How do you interpret this?
- Scenario One: Your inner shouting voice says: “#&it, I blew it. This was my chance to show off my marketing smarts and I totally messed it up. I’ll never get promoted. I might even get fired!”
- Scenario Two: Your inner shouting voice says: “So glad this was my first draft! We have several more check-ins ahead. This feedback will help me make the next version so much better.”
Can you imagine how different you would feel coming at this situation with the second frame of mind versus the first? Can you see how your reaction might ultimately impact how your Director and others on the team perceive your leadership potential?
You can learn to reframe your perfectionistic thoughts. Although you can’t always control what happens to you, you can control how you react to it. Reframing starts with recognizing the language you habitually use to react to specific circumstances and then choosing to alter it to fit a different, more productive interpretation.
Is perfectionism impacting your performance at work? Try this free assessment to gauge how and how much.
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