How trying to be perfect can hold you back

Women are particularly vulnerable to perfectionism, argue Sally Helgesen and Marshall Smith.

by Sally Helgesen
Last Updated: 20 Jun 2018

Striving to be perfect may have helped get you where you are, but it will get in your way as you aspire to higher levels. There are many reasons this is so.

• Striving to be perfect creates stress, for you and for those around you, because it’s based on expectations that human beings may occasionally live up to but which cannot be sustained over time.

• Striving to be perfect keeps you riveted on details, distracting you from the big-?­picture orientation that’s expected when you reach a senior position.

• Striving to be perfect creates a negative mind-?­set in which you’re bothered by every little thing that goes wrong, since even a small mistake can "ruin" the whole. And negativity is never valued in a leader.

• Striving to be perfect sets you up for disappointment for the simple reason that it’s unrealistic. You, and the people who work with and for you, will never be perfect—at least as long as you live on planet Earth.

In our experience, women are especially vulnerable to the perfection trap, the belief that they will succeed if they do their job perfectly and never mess anything up. Women are often undermined by their tendency to give themselves a hard time, a habit rooted in the desire to be perfect. The result is that even high-?­achieving women tend to take failures deeply to heart, get tangled up in self-­blame, and stew over mistakes instead of moving on.


Why are women often vulnerable to this desire to be perfect? Experience and research suggest two reasons: gender expectations that start in childhood, and how those expectations get reinforced in the workplace.

Girls tend to be rewarded for being obedient daughters and excellent students, while boys are given more latitude. People will often speak fondly about a naughty little boy. He’s considered charming, amusing, and adorable. By contrast, girls who fail to conform to expected standards don’t get much of a break. Schools are far more likely to penalize girls for acting out and for aggressive behaviors such as fighting.

Such expectations can prompt girls to seek approval by striving to get everything right, avoiding mistakes and dotting every i. In other words, by trying to be perfect. Girls consistently average higher grades than boys, in part because they develop earlier but also in part because doing so is the surest way to earn approval. It’s not that boys don’t get rewarded for good grades, but the boys who receive the most praise are usually the sports stars. As athletes, they are expected to be assertive, show confidence, stand out from the pack, and be bold.

Executive coach Carlos Marin observes a similar pattern in organizations. "Coaching data and the psychometric surveys we deliver when doing assessments suggest that men at the executive level are most likely to be rewarded for daring and risk-?­taking," he says. "Women at similar levels are most likely to be rewarded for precision and correctness."

The upshot is that many of the senior women Marin and his team work with internalize the expectation that they should be conscientious and precise. He notes that this can result in an excessive fear of making mistakes that shows up in all sorts of ways.

"For example, even in high-?­stakes executive team meetings, men tend to be comfortable making statements they haven’t necessarily thought through, or even stupid statements. But if a woman says something stupid, she’ll be consumed by embarrassment, even shame, and have a hard time letting it go. She might decide to avoid this by keeping her mouth shut in the future. And then she’ll be criticized for being too cautious or not contributing."

Marin notes that people who set very high standards for themselves also usually set very high standards for others. This can make co-workers and direct reports feel resentful. So while it’s understandable that a woman might believe that being perfect is her only path to success, her strenuous efforts will often come back to bite her.


Of course, the drive to deliver superb results is an enormous asset so long as your perfectionistic tendencies can be curbed.

Perfectionists usually struggle with delegation. If you have super-?­exacting standards, it stands to reason that you would have difficulty letting others do their jobs. And because monitoring people’s efforts is time-?­consuming and often fraught, you just may decide that it’s easier and quicker to do the job yourself. The upshot is that you end up loading extra tasks onto your already-?­too-?­full plate.

A root cause of the failure to delegate is often an inability to decide what’s important and what’s not. If you’re trying to be perfect, you’re going to struggle with prioritizing because you’re only comfortable when everything is right. So you may treat being two minutes late for a meeting as seriously as missing the filing date for a finance report since both undermine your need to demonstrate perfection.

If you have perfectionist tendencies, you can best serve your long-?­term interests by learning to delegate, prioritize, and get comfortable taking measured risks. This will create a less stressful environment—for you and for others—and demonstrate your readiness to move forward. The good news is that you will be the primary beneficiary if you lay your burden down.

But only if you can accept not being perfect.

Extracted from How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Smith, out now published by Random House Business Books, £13.99.

Image credit: niroworld/Shutterstock

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