Do you fall into the perfectionism trap?


Like many of you who read my weekly thoughts, I listen to others for inspiration. I found that spark of an idea when listening to Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick, two fellow members of the 100 Coaches community.

They shared a story about Colonel Nicole Malachowski, and her transition from being a combat solo fighter pilot and commanding a team of fighter jets to a demonstration pilot flying in formation.

She shared, “When you’re flying solo and you hit turbulence you have to take charge and hold the controls with a tighter grip to bring your jet under control. But when you’re flying in formation and your team hits turbulence together, you loosen your grip and give your team room to get through it as a unit, and a tighter grip would only create more of a problem.”

What a beautiful analogy for leader vs manager – or should I say, micro manager. I always thought about the leader being uplifting and supportive, visualizing arms held out, palms up. Whereas the manager’s role is to hold it all together and maintain control – the visual of arms encircling and creating a boundary between what is held close and anything outside the circle.

This is where the perfectionism myth came to mind. I am currently coaching a client who is likely the smartest person in every room. She has a desire to make things the best she can, over contribute, seek perfection, and always has something to change in the work her team presents.

A manager seeking perfection will keep a tight grip on all team activity, set high expectations, continually check up on small tasks, and consistently give ideas on improvement. Likely forgetting the encouraging and reinforcing balance of the positive feedback.

Here is the perfectionism trap: That manager will get less effort out of their people rather than more. Why? They are thinking, “This is never going to be perfect, so why bother – she will change it anyway.”

So what do you do instead? Create psychological safety. Make it ok for your team to make mistakes, take risks, propose a different approach, speak their mind, and contribute in a way that they feel the impact of their work. Something that is intrinsically motivating.

There’s a saying in Portuguese, that I have always loved. The translation is, “A mistake is a mistake when you make it twice.”

Being a leader means giving your team room and allowing space to make those first mistakes and learn from them. Being a perfectionist and wanting things done the “right” way can squash innovation, contribution, engagement, confidence, and morale.

Take the advice of the real-life leader Colonel Nicole Malachowski, and loosen your grip to allow others to soar.

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