Emotional intelligence: 6 ways to fight your perfectionism

Striving for quality work is admirable, but take perfectionist habits too far and you'll hurt progress. Use these emotional intelligence tactics to keep perfectionism in check
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Perfectionism can be a particularly tough habit to break – in part because it’s disguised as a desirable quality. In fact, it’s a source of pride for a lot of perfectionists, says psychologist and executive coach Dr. Melanie Katzman.

“Perfectionism is often flaunted like a badge of honor – it’s the answer given to the interview question, ‘What’s your worst trait?’ when one wants to humble brag,” says Katzman. “But the reality is that working and reworking your assignments in search of the perfect solution can be crippling, for both you and your co-workers.”

The key is to recognize when perfectionist tendencies are getting the way, and correct course before they becomes a problem. It takes emotional intelligence to handle this well.

"By rising to difficulty and even failing, we learn how to do our best work."

“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,” says Sanjay Malhotra, CTO at Clearbridge Mobile.

[ Too many perfectionists in your work group? Read also: Emotional intelligence: How to help teams fight perfectionism. ]

If you struggle with perfectionism, here are six things you can do to ensure it’s not getting the way of progress.

1. Don't leave people hanging

No one wants to be the person on the team who’s holding everyone else up. If you put off responding to emails or you’re constantly requesting more time on your assignments, you may be striving for a level of perfection that others don’t expect – or even need – from you.

“Perfectionists usually don’t respond to a colleague’s request for information until they have the complete and perfect answer,” says Katzman, founder of Katzman Consulting and author of the book Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning and Joy at Work. “To the person placing the request, this can make it seem like you’re a bottle neck, not a team player.”

Perfectionists often miss deadlines because they are trying to fix “this one last thing.” says Katzman. Instead, she suggests responding to emails promptly with a considered guess and the caveat that a more thorough response would take a little more time. Or, she says, you can point the colleague to another person who can help. On projects, “Inform your colleagues of your progress and share your emergent thinking before the deadline so you have a chance to refine your deliverable,” she says.

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

2. Focus on meaningful results

Instead of trying to get to “perfect,” just try to get to “meaningful,” says Jason James, CIO of Net Health.

“Attempting perfection is to court failure by delaying actual progress. Instead of focusing on a perfect solution, focus on a solution that delivers meaningful results, but one that can be continuously improved upon,” says James. “If there were perfect systems and solutions, there would be a lot less technologists. Be grateful that perfection is unobtainable.”

3. Be date-driven

There are two ways to drive progress on a project: by feature or by date. Switching to a date-focused mindset can minimize perfectionist tendencies, says Robert Reeves, CTO of Datical.

“With feature-driven work, we work towards a known goal without knowing the end date. It’s done when it’s done. The other way is date-driven, where we will deliver something on a date, but we don’t know what the final product will look like,” says Reeves. “I prefer the date-driven approach. This allows my team to release something and solicit feedback from the user community. It might not meet our standards, but that doesn’t matter. The customers and their opinions are what truly matters.”

[ Want to give your team a greater sense of urgency? Get our free resource: Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]

4. Say "yes" to a stretch assignment

Rather than being recognized for exceptional quality of work, the perfectionist can end up stuck in a rut.

If you prefer to stay in your comfort zone, your perfectionism might be getting in the way of your career progress. Rather than being recognized for your exceptional quality of work, you could end up stuck in a rut, says Katzman.

“Perfectionists may lose out on advancement opportunities because they lack the confidence that they can do a job well enough before they have experienced it." Women are particularly likely to lack this confidence, she adds.  "As a result, they don’t apply for promotion or put their hand up for special projects,” she says.

Leaders should tune into the perfectionists on their team and help them step out of their comfort zones. “Challenge and support them to take a risk,” says Katzman. “Fear of failure can be more pronounced for team members whose background is different from others, so make sure to invite them in and identify how they can meet expectations.”

5. Resist all-or-nothing thinking

Having a vision of “perfect” can box you into “all or nothing” thinking, says Malhotra. Fight this by staying curious and open to new ideas, he advises.

“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,” he says.

“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,” says Malhotra.

6. Get clarity when you need it

“I don’t know” can be the three hardest words for a perfectionist to say. Instead of feeling defeated by these words, try to see them as an opportunity – to make a connection, learn something new, or solve a problem.

“Perfectionists think they need to be in the know,” says Katzman. “Don’t understand what’s being asked of you? Pick up the phone or better yet, walk down the hall. Have a verbal interaction. Sometimes the person requesting your services doesn’t really know what they want, but together, you can articulate the ‘right’ question.”

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

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  


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