Reframing Perfectionism: Three Steps Toward Being “Perfectly Human” at Work

Perfectionism is a condition, a trap, and a self-imposed state of shame that affects many of us, often unbeknownst to us. It also happens to be a consequence of inevitably coming up short when our expectations were unrealistic in the first place. In my recent article Perfectly Human: Evading The Trap of Perfectionism, I came clean on my own perfectionist tendencies, sharing the story of my inner critic Eve and offering insight on avoiding the perfectionism traps that await us along the path of life. I hope you’ve read that article and have meditated on the three steps toward accepting yourself as imperfect yet Perfectly Human.

Let’s now dig a little deeper into those three steps as they apply to the workplace setting.

Gauging The Deliverables

As I’ve mentioned before, a big first step to managing the obsessive state of perfectionism is to recognize that we are harder on ourselves than anyone else could ever be on us. I find that this draconian self-judgment is often based on emotion. For instance, the false conundrum of “having it all” is at the root of self-imposed disappointment for many of us. Parents, especially women, feel pressure to “do it all” in order to get there, and naturally, emotions become their roadblocks. They feel guilty while at work because they should be at home with the kids, and guilty while at home because they’re not tending to their career.

A grounding mindset to help manage these guilty feelings is to set clear expectations for yourself before a project, assignment or undertaking to determine what is acceptable for the circumstance. Sheryl Sandberg reminds us that “Done is better than perfect”. To extend (or leverage) her wise words, do a pre-mortem to determine what “done” looks like for you. What constitutes as complete? What is fair to submit as promised work? Perhaps the old adage of “under-promising and overdelivering” can be reframed as delivering a thorough and thoughtful composite of what was agreed upon when it was promised. A dispassionate analysis of these two dimensions may constitute a self-check to determine when you are doing work that isn’t truly adding additional value to the deliverable.

Releasing Those Anxieties

A second step is to embrace the notion that there is no roadmap to life’s success. While working with rising managers and leaders, I’ve noticed they often inquire about what they “should” do to become a valued leader. They seek a punch list— a template for their rise. They feel insecure if they don’t have all the answers up front. I assure them that if they lead with their strengths, stay curious, remain in-tune with their gut and focus on building relationships, they can steer their careers more organically. as I write this, I suppose we do use a ‘punchlist’ as our coaching roadmap. For those who remain skeptical or resistant, I suggest that they become comfortable with “messy”, recognizing and accepting that uncertainty will be a constant in their careers. Those who can release their anxieties about this uncertainty and can let go of preconceived notions of what “should” be are then guided by the principles of their strengths and their track record.

Taking Ownership

Step three towards being perfectly human is to embrace mistakes. This might sound entirely counter-intuitive in our dog-eat-dog world. But don’t forget: we make mistakes every day, and if we’re not making mistakes, we’re not learning and growing. It’s alarming to think about how much time people spend trying to cover their tushes and deflect any blame onto others. Taking ownership when you make a mistake can be incredibly powerful. It breaks down others’ resistance to defending themselves, it positions you as a trustworthy (not backstabbing) colleague or service provider, and you carve out space to authentically address possible solutions to the blunder. Rest assured, I speak from experience:

There were 2 separate occasions that come to mind from my restaurant ownership years wherein first-time guests were rightfully annoyed and complained about waitstaff mishaps. In each instance, I didn’t make excuses for myself or place the blame on those at fault. Rather, I empathetically apologized, took full responsibility, and offered some options to rectify the mishap. As a result, not only were the situations diffused, but the guests in question became my most loyal customers going forward! To this day, this approach serves as one of my life’s greatest lessons, as I embrace the opportunity to learn from my daily blunders and misses.

Amazingly, it would be another 15 years after my restaurant days before I even learned about the Growth Mindset, which is a key element in Re-Leasing perfectionism. This is what I’ll explore in my follow-up article.

And one last note about the office before I close: Many women bosses I work with find themselves in a workplace conundrum, fearful they’re coming off as bossy or overly-assertive to those they manage. If this strikes a chord with you, be sure to sign up for THIS FRIDAY’s OfficeHours, Being A Boss Without Being A Bitch.

If you enjoy what you’re reading and are considering living life more fully, schedule a complimentary consultative session with DRIVEN HERE.