Trapped by the Trait of Perfection
By Geoff Watts & Kim Morgan, authors of The Coach's Casebook: Mastering The Twelve Traits That Trap Us
‘Shoot for the moon, because even if you miss, you’ll land in the stars.’
Setting high standards can drive us to achieve things we never thought possible. Being thorough and aiming to do the best we possibly can are great characteristics to have. Perfectionists achieve great things: they can be relied upon for their diligence and they avoid costly mistakes from rash decisions.
However, if overdone, this positive trait can become a trap where good enough is never good enough; we focus exclusively on end results, are unable to enjoy the journey and, as a result, lose joy in our work. How can we bring this trait into a healthy balance?
The key to the degree of effectiveness is how we react to ‘landing in the stars’. Do we see this as a great result? A stepping stone to something greater? Or do we view it as failure? This largely depends on where we sit on the adaptive/maladaptive perfectionist scale .
Adaptive perfectionists manage to maintain a healthy self-esteem, do not berate themselves excessively, regroup and try again. Maladaptive perfectionists often react badly and ‘lash out’ at themselves and others. Over time, maladaptive perfectionists tend to suffer from procrastination (in order to avoid failure) and/or defeatism (which may lead to depression if left unchecked) as well.
Coaching the perfectionist
Coaching a perfectionist can be a pleasant experience as they often want to be the perfect coaching client! However, there can also be a reluctance on their part to show vulnerability and ‘imperfection’ through reflection.
A great place to start with a client who may be struggling with their perfectionist tendencies is to explore with them what ‘perfect’ means to them. For example, a perfectionist might expect their presentation to the management team to be flawless, with no pauses, running perfectly to time with no stumbling over pronunciation and incorporating a perfect answer to every conceivable question.
However, a more realistic expectation would be that they might pause where necessary and mispronounce the odd difficult word. The presentation might run two minutes over time and this, again, will be acceptable.
A great question to consider is: “What are you assuming about your performance that might not be true?”
When considering this, our perfectionist presenter might reply with:
- I am assuming that if I give a bad presentation then people will think I am an idiot
- I am assuming that people will want to ask me questions to ‘catch me out’
- I am assuming that if I give a bad presentation my chance of a promotion will be missed and I may even lose my job
These assumptions, when verbalised, may be clearly seen to be untrue or, at least, unhelpful. Once we have identified false or unhelpful assumptions we can consciously adopt a new assumption that is more helpful.
We interviewed former England cricket captain Alec Stewart about this trait and he told us: “I don't believe perfect exists. There's a saying in cricket that 'you've never got enough'. You may have scored 130 but you could have got 230.”
In his early career, Alec told me that “it was well-known that the selectors paid attention to hundreds. 99s didn't get noticed”. He feels he may have put so much pressure on himself to achieve these ‘perfect’ targets that he forgot his own personal goal of ‘do the best you can’.
Eventually he adopted some routines to apply his perfectionist streak at the micro level – he started twiddling his bat and then taking a walk in-between balls. He describes it as being ‘like a reset’. He told me that he also broke down the big target into smaller targets. "I broke it down so that I wasn't going out to score 100. I started building my innings in tens. Get to 10, then 20, then 30”.
Redefining success in his own terms was really important to helping him master his perfectionist trait because, as Alec puts it, “sometimes a draw can feel like a win”.
 Enns, M. W., Cox, B. J., Sareen, J., & Freeman, P. (2001). Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism in Medical Students: A Longitudinal Investigation. Medical Education, 35(11), 1034-1042
About the authors
Geoff Watts is a leadership and performance coach with Inspect & Adapt Ltd and is a regular keynote speaker about coaching, collaboration and change. He is a member of the ABP, ICF and NCP.
Kim Morgan is the owner and Director of Barefoot Coaching Ltd. Kim was awarded Coaching Person of the Year 2012 and is a visiting research fellow on coaching at the University of Chester.
Together they have co-authored The Coach’s Casebook: Mastering the twelve traits that trap us (published February 2015).