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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Grobman

Perfectionist? Don't Fall Into These Three Traps

My past role as a corporate strategy manager required developing and presenting new ideas to senior executives and support them in presenting their ideas to even higher-ups. Meaning, most of my job revolved around producing PowerPoint slides, validating those slides with others, redoing more slides and eventually delivering some kind of a visually polished Frankenstein that had very little to do with my original objectives.

I was never a very visual person so slide production became an anxiety-ridden exercise: Does it look good or not? Will they approve it or will they not? As a result, instead of thinking about what ideas and recommendations were most valuable, I spent the majority of my time obsessing about which visual framework had a higher chance of eliciting a "wow" response from my bosses. Many times, the presentations I put all of my hard labor into, didn't even get used. This experience certainly improved my visual presentation skills but it also taught me about the risk of forgetting the end goal in the process of delivering the perfect presentation.

In some work environments, perfectionist tendencies are a result of hierarchical structures and management styles that punish employees for any little mistake, trap them in infinite revision cycles and condition them to prioritize "perfect" answers over correct ones. Becoming my own boss allowed me to let go of my slide-production anxiety and focus my attention on other issues that were more critical for running my business.

Yet, for some people, perfectionism is an internal drive. I know because I am married to a perfectionist. My physics professor hubby recently spent two weeks preparing for a community service assignment: giving a one-hour class about research at a local high school. He kept obsessing for hours, tossing and turning at night, trying to decide what he should talk about. He redid the whole presentation at least three times and then spent more hours revising his final storyline. In the end, only two students showed up to his class and they were more concerned with going home than listening to his presentation. Ouch!

Perfectionist: Striving for flawlessness accompanied by overly critical evaluations of your own and other peoples’ behavior. (Joachim Stoeber, 2015)

For a perfectionist working in a highly-demanding, competitive environment full of other perfectionists, the daily struggle is very real and can cause high levels of anxiety and stress.

Perfectionism is also highly correlated to the imposter syndrome - fear that people will discover that he or she is a fraud and doesn't belong there.

Resilience and Burnout expert, Paula Davis-Laack, explains that perfectionists are prone to thinking traps (overly rigid patterns of thinking that cause you to miss information) which can undercut their performance and put them in a mental state that can eventually lead to burnout.

Don't Let Perfectionism Become Your Achilles' Heel

Whether you are born perfectionist or a conditioned one, there are three thinking traps you should pay attention to:

1. All-or-nothing thinking: the tendency to think that anything short of spectacular is not worthy of presenting to others or that any negative feedback is a sign of your work being a complete failure.

Exit Strategy: Identify the gray area or middle ground: is the situation at hand or your deliverable really that bad? In many cases, the 80/20 rule can be a useful filter in evaluating the amount of effort and care that a particular deliverable requires. Moreover, framing negative feedback as input rather than verdict is an important tool for dealing with it productively.

2. Personalizing: making failure about yourself and assuming that if anything went wrong it must be your own fault.

Exit Strategy: Evaluate how other people and circumstances contributed to the outcome.

3. Externalizing: blaming others for anything that went wrong and not assuming responsibility nor adapting future approaches.

Exit Strategy: evaluate how you've contributed to the outcomes of the project and what you could do or communicate differently next time.

Sometimes, it may be difficult to emotionally distance oneself from the situation to evaluate own and others' roles objectively. Look for a trusted outsider's (a friend, a coach or a mentor) perspective to help you get out of these thinking traps!

This article was originally published in my column in Forbes Careers.

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