Emotional intelligence: How to help teams fight perfectionism

Perfectionism can cripple teams. Emotionally intelligent leaders can use curiosity, persistence, collaboration, and empathy to help people stay agile and keep improving
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Aspiring to achieve lofty goals is healthy, as long as it doesn’t become crippling. There is a saying: “Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress.”

In my experience in software development through various roles and as CTO at Clearbridge Mobile, I’ve found that this saying resonates. Agile development places great emphasis on iteration, or the idea of failing fast so you can learn, adapt, and improve quickly and continuously. Perfectionism actually impedes your ability to become better.

Many aspects of perfectionistic thinking, like the fear of making mistakes and adopting an all-or-nothing mindset, are not beneficial learning tools, and seeking perfection in every project will not help us achieve product goals.

[ Are you making decisions in the best way? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]

Through the practice of emotional intelligence, we learn about our strengths – and perhaps more importantly, our limits – and how to extend them by learning from mistakes and overcoming challenges. By rising to difficulty and even failing, we learn how to do our best work. 

This article will explore four facets of emotional intelligence, how to leverage them to achieve goals, and how they can lessen the perfectionist behavior and thought patterns that are detrimental to agile teams.

1. Be curious

Emotionally intelligent individuals have an active sense of curiosity. They explore new possibilities, ask questions, and are open to multiple solutions. If we submit to perfectionist thought patterns, it’s easy to become obsessive about obtaining a highly specific or singular performance outcome. We put blinders on and block out the learning process involved at arriving at a goal.

When we’re on a goal path, it’s essential to curiously interrogate the process of goal attainment so that we can course-correct when we face obstacles. By being curious, we’re made aware of other options and directions to take to achieve our goals. But to do this, we need to resist all-or-nothing thinking and be open to altering our goal orientation. In an agile environment, it’s essential to adjust when the unexpected occurs.

Are you setting performance goals only? Learning goals shift our focus.

We can’t completely ignore performance goals. In our careers, we inevitably come up against quantifiable performance outcomes to obtain (increase time-to-market by 30 percent or reduce costs by 10 percent, for example). Learning goals, however, shift our focus from the end result to the process of learning the best approach to goal attainment. Unless the performance outcome has dire consequences to a project, I suggest approaching goals with a learning orientation whenever possible.

Experiment with new strategies, keep track of progress, and keep iterating until you find the most promising solution. Attempting to deliver perfect results will only hold you back from learning new ways of achieving goals. You need to know when to pivot to the next solution, and it’s important to understand that plans won’t run without fault – which brings me to the next aspect of emotional intelligence to build into your skillset: persistence.

[ Working on your emotional intelligence? Learn the behaviors to avoid as you build your EQ: 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

2. Be persistent in the face of frustration

There are countless frustrations standing between us and our goals. Some of these frustrations are unavoidable, while others are of our own creation: mistakes, setbacks, external dependencies, or procrastination, for example. No matter what, we will face frustration on our way to achieving goals.

But emotionally intelligent individuals and the best software developers persist, regardless of any frustration they experience. Emotionally intelligent people know how to work through frustration because they’re capable of regulating their emotions, staying positive under pressure, and calming themselves amidst vexation.

In spite of that, if we give way to perfectionism, we tend to fear mistakes. We’re also more likely to adjust goals to make them easier when we face setbacks, as well as prolong procrastination – because we can’t fail at something we haven’t started. Using emotional intelligence to combat frustration not only involves self-regulation but also requires developing or strengthening willpower.

When we have confidence that goals are attainable, we can give ourselves permission to be imperfect.

Developing willpower can help ease perfectionistic habits and thought patterns by improving self-confidence. People who believe they can accomplish something worthwhile outperform those who think otherwise. When we have confidence that particular goals are attainable, we can give ourselves permission to be imperfect because we believe we’re capable of achievement regardless of obstacles along the way.

Again, in software development, you need to accept imperfection. While being open to failure is frustrating, practicing the fail fast method allows development teams to find and correct defects sooner. That means fewer bugs go into production, which leads to high-quality, production-ready software.

As CTO of Clearbridge Mobile, Sanjay Malhotra has built an agile team of mobile experts who have created award-winning solutions for media, telecom, fintech, healthcare, mobile payments, and QSRs.