By Frances McIntosh, Forbes Coaches Council
Toxic behaviors are a major energy drain in teams and organizations. The web is awash with tips and insights on dealing with narcissists and how we are drawn in by their charm and charisma. Mind games like “gaslighting” and “goal-post moving” have us doubting our sanity, leaving us feeling battered, bruised and exhausted.
But did you know that there is another toxic trait that may have crept into your team or leadership unnoticed? This behavior is subtler and may have been perceived as simply having high standards or an intense work ethic. What am I talking about? Perfectionism. It is the behavior where an individual is constantly striving for unobtainable standards or judging their self-worth on achievements.
Generally, it is a good idea to have high standards. Setting challenging goals help us have direction and purpose. And from a psychological standpoint, we need a feeling of accomplishment in our lives. However, when these goals are unachievable or trigger addictive behaviors, it is time to reassess.
Perfectionism can be driven by the goal of success or, for some, by fear of failure. And yes, some perfectionists are narcissists.
The condition can develop in childhood through praise of academic or athletic achievement; by punishment for making mistakes, leaving the child’s thought process as, “Next time, I will be perfect so that my parents won’t punish me;” or by modeling, copying the behaviors of those around them. Perfectionism lacks flexibility. It’s an “always or never” thought process — an unrealistic and rigid mindset that builds boundaries. And yet, there is more than just one type of perfectionism.
With more than one type, how can this condition be rigid? Often, this is demonstrated by the impact your perfectionist leader has on you and your team.
1. Self-Orientated Perfectionism
These leaders focus on their flaws and failures and appear to be too busy perfecting their own work to have time for their team’s questions or problems. They can be dismissive and perceived as angry, impatient and frenetic. They sequester themselves in their office and stay late or often come in very early. Why? Because they need all this extra time to redo their work to their “idea” of perfection. The result is delayed deadlines, broken commitments and procrastination. They have alienated their team to the point that no one’s watching anymore and, frankly, no one cares much either.
2. Other-Orientated Perfectionism
These leaders may not be perfectionists themselves, but they expect you to be. They criticize and shame you when your work is not up to their rigid standards. They change the goals or expectations constantly and often at the last minute. They are breathing down your neck, cracking the whip and micromanaging, while making sure you cross every “t” and dot every “i.”
3. Socially-Orientated Perfectionism
These leaders are focused on one external question, “What will people think if I fail? What will people think if I’m imperfect?” They are people pleasers, tweaking and perfecting in the hope they will be respected.
4. Self-Promotion Perfectionism
These leaders are actively displaying their “perfection” to others, attempting to look, demonstrate or behave in a perfect manner that showcases their flawlessness. This type can be mistaken for egocentrism — the difference being that self-promotion perfectionism is coming from a lack of self-confidence. They are poor listeners and are perceived as superficial, uncaring and non-cooperative. They leave you feeling exhausted and deflated.
The Bottom Line
Perfectionism in any form is a constant speed bump. It slows down your team, kills motivation and stunts creativity. Often, perfectionism is worn as a badge of honor. In reality, it is an armor, a 10-ton shield slowing down you and your team, and it is hiding the authentic you.
At its worst, many perfectionists develop anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, eating disorders, etc., due to their need to perfect themselves and their environment.
One antidote for perfectionism is self-compassion. Get intentional about self-care and being kind to yourself when your inner or external perfectionist appears. This also includes understanding the difference between pursuing perfection — an unreachable, often unrealistic goal — and striving for excellence – when you pursue a goal with the intent to learn and grow along the way. Practicing self-compassion removes the pressure that comes from “perfection.”
Check in daily and give candid, respectful feedback focusing on personal and professional growth. Set healthy behavior and attitude boundaries of what’s OK and what’s not OK. Design an alliance that sets your leader and your team up for success.
A leader is someone who has influence over others. Everyone has influence. You may not have the title of “leader,” but you still have influence. Whether it is your own perfectionism — narcissist type or not — or someone else’s, encourage an open environment to discuss behaviors that negatively impact the team. By acknowledging the perfectionism in the room, it becomes easier to keep motivation amongst your team high. Success becomes achievable!
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