Perfectionism – The Voice of the Oppressor

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life” – Anne Lamott

Everything Joe did was “perfect”.  He considered every possible angle in formulating a business plan or while working on a project. He continually demanded more research. Deadlines came and went and he drove everyone including his boss crazy with his perfectionism. The result. Projects that missed deadlines.  His boss had a dilemma. Keep Joe on the team because of his elegant products or solutions or find another team leader who could get it done but not necessarily right. Unfortunately perfectionism slowed Joe down and, parenthetically, caused him much personal distress because he missed deadlines.

Joe was referred for coaching because of his disruptive perfectionism. His strength, attention to detail was becoming his weakness.

I was struck by a recent article in FastCompany “The Truth About Being “Done” Versus Being “Perfect”. The author, Martin Lindstrom contrasts the culture of caution in many established organizations with that at Facebook where two slogans drive this innovative culture.

  1. Done is better than perfect
  2. Move fast and break things

I mentioned those two mottos to Joe and he literally went as white as a sheet. He absolutely feared making a mistake and in so doing realized the truth of Shakespeare who wrote:

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”

So what does one (or a corporate culture) do if perfectionism becomes a disadvantage?

  1. Recognize that in the process of trial and error that increasing one’s success means doubling (at least) one’s errors.

Example: I once counseled a person struggling with shyness and who avoided social situations to “go to the dance and ask at least 20 women to dance before he gave up and left.” Person number 16 accepted his invitation to dance and disproved his belief “nobody wants to dance with me”.

  1. In your own risk/award analysis of a potential action do not spend too much time obsessing over the danger of failing. (It depends on your project of course. If you are trying to invent a better parachute your margin for error is much lower).
  1. Don’t let the power of your imagination be crushed by “what if I fail” thoughts. Do not take your eye off the goal and surround yourself by people who believe in and work towards that same goal.

I conclude with a quote from the Lindstrom article.

But at this very moment, someone is hanging one of those fine Facebook posters on their business’ office wall. And like David, armed with little more than a slingshot and a stone, they’re acting on pure courage and just going for it, because that’s one of the rules of survival today–not tomorrow.


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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2 Responses to Perfectionism – The Voice of the Oppressor

  1. Very nice post Cedric. I will forward it to one of my coachees.
    Kind regards from Venice (Italy) where we ate on vacation,

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