The One Trait That Could Hurt a Great Career
Life + Money

The One Trait That Could Hurt a Great Career


There isn’t a company in America that doesn’t want great employees – people with knowledge of their field, pride in their work, and an overriding interest in helping their firms achieve success. But what happens when a worker falls prey to perfectionism?   

High standards and the pursuit of excellence are always desirable traits. The need for due diligence and thoughtful analysis are critical, too (think infrastructure or medicine). But many highly skilled employees, in a quest for perfection, can gum up the works, hold their teams back and stand in the way of innovation because they’re aiming for somewhere north of superb - making perfectionism toxic in the workplace.     

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“There’s an inherent danger in being a ‘perfection’ chaser,” says Travis Furlow of Alexander Mann Solutions, a global talent management firm in Detroit. “It sets an expectation that isn’t normally achievable.”  

Perfectionist employees are usually pretty easy to spot. They re-do projects over and over to get things “just right.” They can be risk averse. They can lose sight of a firm’s larger goals or of their own. (Real perfectionism, of course, can be severely destructive and can lead to anxiety, depression or even suicide, a paper in Review of General Psychology argued last fall.)

Most perfectionists are focused on getting every little thing exactly right – which often backfires.  

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If you recognize signs of perfectionism in yourself or in people you know, these expert insights can help you break free of this less-than-desirable quality.  

1: Aiming for perfection often eliminates creativity, spontaneity and disruption – all qualities that are integral to doing well at work.

“Finding a way to be OK with ‘pretty good’ and staying focused on productivity is instead the path to success,” says Michele Woodward, an executive coach in the Washington, D.C. area. “People need to get their work out there and revise as needed.” She says that when she did that in her own career – her work took off.  

As a proactive leader you always have the option of revising or tweaking something afterward, adds Chuck Wardell, CEO of executive search firm Witt/Kieffer in Oak Brook, Illinois.

2: “Solutions are only ‘perfect’ at the moment they’re created because the marketplace is changing all the time,” says Kim Janson, an executive coach at the Harvard Business School and author of the new book, Demystifying Talent Management: Unleash People’s Potential to Deliver Superior Results.

Instead of toiling away on an idea with a limited lifespan (thus missing an opportunity altogether), be willing to stick your neck out, to say “I don’t know,” and to keep pushing forward. “In the long run you’ll be more productive, gain more experience and help your business be more innovative,” advises Travis Furlow of Alexander Mann Solutions. 

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3: Perfectionism is often rooted in a lack of confidence. “We are so afraid of the ramifications of being wrong that we overachieve,” says Julianne Franke, a career coach in the Atlanta area.

Instead, have enough faith in yourself and your ability to handle rejection or failure – there just isn’t time to do otherwise. “Today’s workers and leaders are overburdened with more than they can handle, so perfectionism isn’t really an option,” says Franke. “Pushing ahead also builds confidence and resilience, which is crucial to succeeding.”  

4: Ironically, many leaders are perfectionists by nature. “It’s partly why they were able to achieve leadership status in the first place,” says Matt Rizzetta, CEO of North 6th Agency, a communications firm based in New York City.

It’s the rare leader who holds himself to an ultra-high level of performance but holds off on expecting perfectionism from others - which can breed second guessing in employees. Instead, replace perfectionism with accountability. “Accept that nobody’s perfect, that mistakes will be made,” says Rizzetta. “As long as there’s a system of full accountability and those who make mistakes commit to making improvements, organizations will generally come out in better shape than if mistakes were never made in the first place.”

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5: “Organizations should define when ‘slightly less than perfect’ will be good enough, as well when more rigor and care are needed,” advises Ray Carvey, executive vice president at Harvard Business Publishing. “A process should be in place to capture learning from any failures that do occur.”

Many new employees are not going to excel right out of the gate but often make a very good move – which can be better than a “perfect” move that takes days or weeks to execute, says Carvey. A transparent work process that shares control and accountability across teams is smart to implement.  

“Mistakes do happen, but the pace at which people complete products is much faster – a reasonable tradeoff in today’s business environment. Even with imperfect data, conflicting inputs and never enough time, today’s leaders need to take action and move the business forward,” says Carvey. “Those who can adapt will be successful the fastest.” As will employees of all levels. 

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