Why a Perfectionist Approach Will Hurt Your Business

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As a small business owner, it's important to have high standards for success.

You want to build a reputation for being the best in the business, and you can't accomplish that without high expectations. But for best results, you need to keep a balance. On one hand, it's silly to expect anything to happen without putting in effort, but on the other hand, expecting perfect execution and results can cause unnecessary complications.

Do you ever slide into the dangerous territory of perfectionism as you run your business?

If so, you run the risk of hurting your business growth and even blocking your creative and entrepreneurial spirit. Business growth can only happen when expectations are high enough to be encouraging and visionary, but not so high as to be out of reach, which can cause constant stress and a sense of failure.

Stay alert for signs of perfectionism in yourself and your team members, and take proactive steps to encourage more flexibility.

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism describes an overwhelming urge to strive for excellence. For perfectionists, an A on a report card is not good enough — it needs to be an A+. Perfectionists feel like achieving anything less than perfection reflects negatively on them, and this hurts. It can appear alongside eating disorders or depression.

Oddly enough, perfectionists are not always "doers." Even though they feel a great drive to achieve excellence, the thought of having to perform their work perfectly, without mistakes, can make them feel overwhelmed. They know how much effort is needed to meet their high standards and go over every little detail, and it's exhausting to drum up that level of energy time and time again. This can lead to procrastination.

But the cycle doesn't end there, because perfectionists recognize procrastination as a negative trait. If they were "perfect," they wouldn't procrastinate, or so they believe. A mental struggle ensues, causing stress and anxiety. Perfectionists can feel an urge to achieve while simultaneously feeling unable to do so.

Why Perfectionism Hurts Business

Perfectionism hurts your business because it acts as a huge roadblock.

Instead of giving you the tools you need to succeed, perfectionism weighs you down with self-doubt and procrastination. Instead of creating strategies and jumping into action, the perfectionist will want to continue to "plan" every single detail. They'll get caught up in an endless cycle of "what if?"

Asking "what if?" represents an important tactic for strategic planning, but it can't be the question that we ask all day, every day as small business owners. Perfectionism can stop you from starting because you're not sure how you can ever reach perfection. You can't start because you don't know what the first step is, and you're afraid to make a mistake, even when no one's watching. And if you do get started, you waste time deliberating and agonizing over each step forward.

On the other hand, you might know exactly what you need to do in order to succeed because you've done it before.

And if your "perfect" procedure does not go off without a hitch, you might panic and feel like all is lost. In reality, focusing on the big picture while remaining flexible about procedures can still get you results. Otherwise, you run the risk of micromanaging your employees and causing stress throughout your team.

Successful Entrepreneurs Are Anti-Perfection

You likely won't find a single successful entrepreneur who recommends a perfectionist approach to business. That's because being an entrepreneur is practically anti-perfection. Entrepreneurs have to remain flexible at all times in order to evaluate a situation and decide whether to change plans. They know how important it is to stay alert for opportunities and be ready to act.

And part of the process inevitably involves making mistakes. Entrepreneurs have tons of ideas, and not all of them are successful. But bouncing back from mistakes and learning from them makes entrepreneurs more resilient, creative and resourceful. Entrepreneurs who keep moving ahead and leave a wake of trial and error behind them still get to their destination faster than a perfectionist who is too afraid to start.

As a small business owner, you have to keep the entrepreneurial spirit that got you started in the first place.

You'll always make mistakes, even after you've been in the business for decades. Embrace those errors instead of avoiding them. Stay curious and tinker around with what works and what doesn't.

Types of Perfectionism

It's difficult to pinpoint a single perfectionist definition because three types of perfectionism exist. They are:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: Individuals place the burden of perfectionism on themselves.

  • Other-oriented perfectionism: Individuals place the burden of perfectionism on other people, often in addition to themselves.

  • Socially prescribed perfectionism: Individuals feel like other people expect them to be perfect.

Therefore, we can see that perfectionism is not just a problem among a single individual, but perhaps can spread to your team in the case of other-oriented perfectionism. It's important to watch out for this trait not only in yourself, but in your managers and employees.

Signs You're a Perfectionist

How do you know you're a perfectionist instead of "normally" detail-oriented?

Think about your reaction when something unexpected happens. Can you go with the flow? If it knocks you off your proverbial feet, you might be a perfectionist, especially one who believes everyone else expects them to be perfect.

In addition to feeling waves of procrastination when faced with a new project, you feel stuck in the planning stages. You want to have a down-to-the-minute plan, or you feel like it's pointless to start. To an outsider, this behavior is obviously inefficient. In a perfectionist's mind, thorough planning will allow for efficiency later . . . but will you ever get started?

Do you have expectations that your employees or colleagues can meet with a reasonable amount of effort? Perfectionists in the other-oriented mindset create high-pressure environments where teammates feel stressed and unable to meet high standards. Micromanagement is another sign of perfectionism.

How to Keep Perfectionist Tendencies in Check

As cliche as it sounds, keeping your own perfectionist tendencies in check begins by realizing you're a perfectionist in the first place.

You might feel in denial at first, because perfectionism is not the valuable trait you might believe it to be. But after reaching an understanding that perfectionism actually gets in the way of your goals, you can start to be mindful of your actions. Pause for even just 20 seconds and tell yourself, "It doesn't have to be perfect, and there's always time to improve it later if needed."

Embrace imperfection, understand that not every task you undertake will result in an award-winning achievement and take heart in knowing that the majority of your mistakes are not on public display.

You're the only one who will know that your first draft of the press release was terribly uninspiring, for example. But getting started and putting words on a page gives you something to work with, just as researching a broad topic gives you a jumping-off point for truly helpful research, picking up the phone starts a chain of events for a new partnership, etc. Do whatever small thing you have to do to get started, even if it's less than perfect.

If you worry about other people holding you to a standard that you can't live up to, sometimes the best way to prove that you still matter to them is to ask for their feedback often. Getting used to hearing constructive criticism can take the edge off of it. And making a mistake after trying so hard to avoid them can also be eye-opening: the world doesn't stop, your business doesn't collapse and people don't hate you just because you weren't 100% organized one day.

It can be wonderfully refreshing and therapeutic to relieve yourself of the burden of perfectionism.

How to Manage Perfectionist Employees

If the reason you're exploring this topic today has less to do with you and more to do with over-achieving perfectionist employees, you may be wondering how to manage them and their expectations.

First, you need to decipher which type of perfectionism they tend to exhibit. If they show inefficiency and procrastination, for example, they might be putting most of the pressure on themselves. Or, they may worry that you, as the manager or boss, expect perfection.

Be careful how you handle the mistakes of someone whom you believe to be a self-oriented perfectionist. Don't be overly harsh, and be sure to quickly return to "the way things were" in terms of how you interact with that person so that they understand you don't think any less of them. If they seem stuck on a large task, help to break it down into an easy first step so they can get started.

For perfectionist employees, emphasize that you appreciate their attention to detail and desire to always give their best effort. But, at the same time, let them know that their work doesn't have to be perfect right away. It can go through a messy process and even some trial and error, as long as the end result is useful. Perfectionist employees should always feel comfortable asking for help rather than viewing it as defeat.

Managing Other-Oriented Perfectionists

Keep a close eye on employees who project their own perfectionist ideals onto their team by micromanaging or failing to appreciate effort. The perfectionist personality may be good for managing short-term, high-stakes projects, but the stress they'll cause in the long term may not be worthwhile for a permanent managerial position.

Even without additional official responsibilities, perfectionists may feel like their colleagues are "slacking" because they don't work at the same pace or place as much importance on the same details.

In any case, remind them that there is more than one right way to do things and to let people figure out their own processes for delivering work. Coach them through some scenarios where they acknowledge and appreciate other people's efforts in order to encourage that kind of response from the perfectionist.

Does Perfectionism Have a Time and Place?

Although we can see that perfectionism can hurt your business, is it a useful trait if used wisely? Perhaps perfectionism does have a time and a place. For example, if you're preparing reports for a very demanding client, you'll want to pay attention to every detail. But for clients who aren't quite so worried if the logo on your report is a little off-center, don't put undue pressure on yourself.

Learning when to unleash your perfectionism and when to let it rest can help you make the most of it. Having high standards will ultimately help you grow your business. The key difference is that perfectionists often maintain standards that are out of reach, or they only envision the finish line without understanding the necessary steps and milestones that will be reached along the way.

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About the Author

Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.