My name is Gini Dietrich, and I’m a perfectionist. It took me a long, long time to realize that this, um, character flaw was preventing my team from excelling. In fact, they were beaten down, and churn was high.
I couldn’t figure out why. We were doing good work. We had great clients. And yet, people didn’t stick around very long. Not much longer than a year. It was rough. I had to take a long, hard look at myself to figure out what was going on.
Turns out, people do want to do good work and work with great clients. They don’t want to have their work torn apart by their boss in the name of perfectionism. Where I thought I was “coaching” to help them improve, they took it as my not trusting them to do their work correctly the first time.
Of course, no one actually told me that when they resigned. They just found another job and went on their merry way. It took a couple of bad experiences and some introspection to figure out why everyone was leaving in droves.
Even still, it was hard for me to give up. It still is. But I’m highly aware today, and I work very hard not to let it get in the way.
Undoing Being a Perfectionist
During the pandemic, we added on a service for clients because we saw a need. In many cases, they had laid off their marketing teams, but still needed marketing and communications support. They couldn’t afford the full teams they once had but could afford what I would call fractional support: someone or a team who could work with them half- or quarter-time.
As the years passed and clients began to hire again, my team and I became more of a professional development and training team. We helped to hire, onboard, and train their new marketing and comms teams so that we could transition the work effectively and nothing was missed.
During those transitions, I led my team and several clients’ teams. A LOT of people were reporting directly to me, and I quickly found that I just didn’t have time to be perfect. I had to quickly give up that facade and learn to be OK with being finished and delivering results.
Turns out, everyone excelled—including me. Everyone loved having access to me to learn and gain new insights and no one was burned out or leaving because I was chopping apart their work simply because it wasn’t perfect.
Being On the Receiving End Stinks
Fast forward to earlier this year. We had a client who was subbing for a colleague who was on maternity leave. This person started with the company just six months ago—and they’ve been our client for five years. We helped to build the marketing and comms teams that are there today. We did not have a hand in hiring this person.
The first piece of content we wrote after she stepped in, she ripped to shreds. Not because the messaging or direction was wrong, but because it wasn’t how she would write it. I will never forget how I felt when I opened the document and saw it completely rewritten.
In fact, I’m pretty sure I threw a hissy fit and said something along the lines of, “Doesn’t she know who I am? How many books has she published? Oh, right. None.”
After I calmed down, I went back to her and had a productive conversation about how writing styles are different and she’s going to burn out her team and mine if she rewrites everything. To boot, I told her that we aren’t going to make the kind of progress she wants to make while her colleague is out if she continues to work this way. I didn’t tell her that people will stop doing their best work if they know she’s just going to rewrite it; they’ll give her a good first draft and that’s it.
We’ve gotten past that hurdle, but I am here to tell you, it SUCKS to have someone do that to your work. It doesn’t feel good and I completely understand why I kept losing talented people in my own business. I was impossible to work with! I wish someone had told me that’s what was going on. Instead, it took me years to figure it out.
And Yet, Perfectionism Is on the Rise
Studies show perfectionism is on the rise. While a drive to exceed expectations is admirable, perfectionism can lead to excess self-criticism, poorer quality of workplace performance, and more serious consequences like burnout and depression. Just as I have experienced with my team in the past.
To boot, perfectionists tend to be Type A (cough, cough) so they are also hard-driving, highly motivated, and are seen as people who know how to duplicate time to get more things done. The trouble with that, though, is they have a hard time delegating.
One of the things I find myself doing, even still today, is a client will ask me for something. And, even though they’re not asking ME to do it, I have difficulty separating what I should be doing (and what they’re paying me to do) from my team. So I put it on my task list and it sits there for a few days as I tend to more pressing matters—the things that only I can do. Suddenly the deadline is upon us, I still haven’t had time to do said thing, and now I can’t delegate it to my team because I’ve procrastinated so long, there isn’t any time for them to do it, either.
So I work during off hours or early in the morning to get it done on time and, of course, in perfect condition. When I’m exhausted by the end of the week, it’s my own fault. And yet.
And They’re Really Bad Delegators
Perfectionists tend to also hoard assignments, spend time tweaking unimportant details, or micromanage, all of which leads to exhaustion and overworking for the individual and low morale for the team.
Poor delegation can also hinder business results. In 2014, a Gallup research team found that companies led by strong delegators achieved higher overall growth compared to companies whose leaders delegated less.
Delegation is an essential leadership skill, especially if you want to drive better results and achieve greater work–life balance, but it’s hindered by a need to be perfect. Today, I often tell my team not to let perfect get in the way of being done. Sometimes it’s perfectly (pun intended!) OK to be OK with progress and getting results, even if it’s not exactly or perfect. As it turns out, your executives much prefer results over perfectionism. So does your team.
Become a Recovering Perfectionist
If you need to learn how to become a recovering perfectionist, Psychology Today has some insightful advice: consider the cost, start small, and share responsibility.
Consider the Cost
As I mentioned above, I am exhausted by the time the weekend arrives and I’ve been a bad perfectionist. I’ve easily put in 14-16 hours a day because I was too lazy to delegate the moment the client asked us for something. The cost is that I’m putting in far too many hours and my work-life balance stinks. And the team sees this and wonders why I’m doing the work instead of them. The cost to them is a lack of trust and slow burnout. It’s a great reminder of why delegation is key—and perfectionism can be lost.
One of the things I ask my agency owner clients to do once a quarter (and I do this myself, too) is to make three lists. The first is things you are doing that only you can do. The second is things you are doing that you hate doing. And the third is things you are doing that can be delegated. A friend once said, “If you’re doing administrative work, you’re an administrative assistant. It doesn’t matter what your title is. That’s what you are.”
Go through your lists and delegate things from the second and third. But don’t do it just once and be done. I have our clients do it quarterly because things pile back up on the second and third lists and we have to make it a habit to learn how to delegate consistently. Hence, starting small.
The Psychology Today article has this to say about sharing responsibility, “As the delegator, your job is to define the “what,” or the final deliverable, and “why,” or the context and purpose. Be clear about your expectations and criteria for success, but delegate authority over how the task is accomplished. This requires you to let go of rigid, perfectionist thinking and the assumption that there is one “right” way to achieve the end result.”
Consider the cost, start small, and share responsibility. If you start with these three things, a year from now, you’ll also be a (mostly) recovering perfectionist.
Gain Some Accountability
If you’d like to have accountability partners on your journey to becoming a recovering perfectionist, join us in the Spin Sucks Community.
It’s a community full of crazy smart professionals. It’s free, it’s fun, it’s smart…and you might just learn a thing or two from your peers. I’ll see you next week!