Project Management

The Dangers of Perfectionism for You and Your Team

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By Yasmina Khelifi, PMI-ACP, PMI-PBA, PMP

At school in France, we were primarily evaluated by the number of mistakes we made and less by our progress. What was importance was to attain excellence and perfection.

Fast forward to my professional career, I have worked in many teams with many people—and some of them have proudly said of themselves, "I'm a perfectionist.”

I recently thought about all of the different project managers I have worked with over the years, and how I managed teams. Being in a technical environment, I have worked with technical experts and many demanding people. I used to think I was a perfectionist…until I worked with many of them. I now see how damaging it can be.

Here are some things to keep in mind with perfectionism…

1. It results in an individual mental burden.
On the individual level, being a perfectionist forces you to redo and rework (documents, slides, speeches, etc.). It is exhausting because your mind is not at peace until everything is done exactly as you want it to be done. You wrestle with your inner critic. And when you get a negative comment, your self-confidence takes a hit and you work even harder to reach so-called perfectionism. The cycle continues.

In the long term, it can damage your mental and physical health. In some cases, perfectionism stems from a stress reaction. It can serve as a wake-up call that you need to alleviate your stress.

Think back to the last moment you were a perfectionist in your activities. How did you feel? Was it worth it? Next time, can you try to let it go and see what happens?

2. It’s a teamwork killer.
When you work alone, being a self-perfectionist can damage your mental health. But if you work in teams and apply the same level of so-called perfectionism (or is it mania?) to them, you can trigger an even more damaging reaction. (I had some colleagues who worked with perfectionists, and they had to rework the slide deck a hundred times because the slides were not quite perfect.)

You must recognize the bigger responsibility here. “I’m a perfectionist” is a refrain you can use to explain your requirements. Don't fall into the trap of this easy excuse! Find an accountability buddy who can help you refrain from this burning desire for perfectionism. Working on changing habits and behaviors is an essential skill for leaders.

Unfortunately, when collaborating with some colleagues, you can also foster impostor syndrome. For example, take Mike—a new project manager in a new field. He doesn't have strong self-confidence. If you are a perfectionist for the work he delivers to you, it may foster impostor syndrome for him. It can also demotivate him, which will be counterproductive. (For more, read my entries Fighting Imposter Syndrome as a Project Manager and Do You Foster Imposter Syndrome in Your Team?.)

Ultimately, the expected impacts are that your coworkers will try to avoid working with you or become numb to your feedback.

3. Adopt a continuous learning mindset.
What is important is to balance the value of perfectionism with the expected outcomes. If you’re giving a presentation in front of a multimillion-dollar client, of course you'll need to polish it and have it reviewed repeatedly. But in general, accepting mistakes from yourself and your team members is the first step in acknowledging that we are humans and that we are learning every day.

Paving the way to improve step by step will be more beneficial and less stressful for you—and your team. In addition, you’ll become a role model as a leader.

If you work with perfectionists in your projects and you’d like to help curb the trend, perhaps you can follow a few tips:

  • Send regular surveys to all stakeholders about the organization, content and format of whatever you are working on (you can even make feedback anonymous). This provides an opportunity to see an external view and helps to illuminate the perfectionist about their behavior.
  • Debrief the team (including the perfectionists) on the results.

In doing so, you also instill a continuous learning mindset.

What are the acceptable boundaries you set up for yourself and your team in your projects? When can you squander? How has perfectionism helped or hindered you as a project manager?

Posted by Yasmina Khelifi on: September 07, 2022 11:41 AM | Permalink

Comments (18)

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Thank you for your sharing. It very helpful! "Perfectionism" will damage anyone's relations. When working with team members, we can not demand alls to be as good as we expect.

Surprisingly, Harvard Business Review has published an article also on perfectionist managers: https://hbr.org/2022/09/the-costs-of-being-a-perfectionist-manager?ab=hero-subleft-2

Dear Yasmina
The topic that you brought to our reflection and debate was very interesting.

Thanks for sharing and for your opinions.

I'm from "school": In Search of Excellence (Tom Peters)

Perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Your idea of perfection may be completely different than your customer's.

Hi Stéphane thank you so much for your great comment. and you are right: perfectionism can take different faces!

Hi Luis thank you for your feedback. I was also from the school of perfectionims but now a bit less (I have found at work better perfectionists)

Hi Nguyen Khai thank you very much for your great feedback! take care Yasmina

Thank you Abolfazi!

Dear Yasmina

What are leaders for? (supposedly the project managers are leaders)

Is it to "challenge" people to take advantage of their enormous potential?

Absolutely agree, the enemy of progress is perfection. Perfection is also a great path to busting schedules and budgets, not to mention the potential challenges of constant change.
Are the deliverables met? Will it work? Is it realistic? Will the client agree to added polish, delays, and cost?
We all want to do the best we can but reality has to enter the project at some point IMHO.

Thanks for this article. It helps a lot.

I recently saw this episode from the Ken Coleman show where he reframes what imposter syndrome is, as simply doubt. Not sure what you all think about this, but it seems to make sense to me. Here's a link to check it out:

https://youtu.be/MpDFz9eK4iQ
(it's the first 8:50 if the episode)

Replacing "imposter syndrome" with the word "doubt" in the article helped me to better understand the impacts of perfectionism.

Thanks again for the article.

Yasmina, totalmente de acuerdo.
Excelente nota. El perfeccionismo claramente puede jugar en contra en el proyecto.
Muchas gracias por compartir.

Hola Sergio muchas gracias! hasta luego!

Thank you Robert and Rohan for your feedback!

Thank you for sharing.

Bonjour Oumaima, merci de votre retour.

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