Perfectionist Leadership: What It Is and Why You Need It

Leaders can't thrive simply on charisma and an aspiring vision. They need to create cultures of attention, affirmation, quality and fairness.

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High-Performance Coach
6 min read
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The term "perfectionist" has become a widely used term to describe the ironic imperfections of a person who wants all things to be perfect. Although there is nothing wrong with the desire for things to be the best it can be, "perfectionism" usually refers to a person's unhealthy need for control over accepting things as they are and may become, their focus on mistakes instead of the bigger picture and their tendency to micromanage over relinquishing control, and their judgmental temperament. 

When you say your parents were perfectionists, everyone understands intuitively what you mean. At their worst, they could be controlling, demanding and domineering. At their "best," they were always around, asking about your homework, making sure you filled out all your forms and politely making sure every day that you cleaned your room and did your chores. Like every English word, however, meanings and definitions can change over time. 

What is perfectionist leadership, and why do we need it?

Perfectionists or those with perfectionist tendencies desire things to be good. Whether it is in our home, our communities, or in our businesses, we need perfectionist leaders — people who desire things to be fair and right. 

At its best, perfectionist leadership leads people toward their goals (individually and collectively) by focusing on positive reinforcement, details, fairness and improvement. Allow me to explore each quality and the benefit of each.

1. Shifting from nit-picking to noticing the details

Perfectionists in our experiences tend to nit-pick — they see every detail and focus on the negative. They do not mean to punish, critique or demotivate anyone but rather wish to shed light on the imperfections they see.

What if instead of nit-picking the imperfections of others' work, leaders noticed the details and commented on every right and positive thing they saw? "I noticed you didn't go out to eat with the others normally to finish your task. Thanks a lot." Or, "It must have taken you a long time to write that email, even though it was quite short."

What if in our work environments, there was a bit more attention to detail? Noticing the efforts that wouldn't necessarily close a sale or complete a project faster but effort nonetheless. The effort toward quality and perfection?

Related: Micromanagement Is Murder, So Stop Killing Your Employees

2. Going from negative to positive reinforcement

Perfectionists or people with a perfectionist personality often recall growing up in an environment that praised good behavior and punished less-than-perfect behavior. At its worst, their childhood emphasized the punishment. At its best, it emphasized the praise. Instead of associating perfectionists with over-critical opinions, we should associate them with overwhelming praise.

Dan Ariely, MIT professor, in a TED talk shows how feeling appreciated at work can increase one's performance. Asking anyone, however, you will be hard-pressed to find many, if not any, who will say their efforts are well appreciated and applauded. 

Instead of our general experience of perfectionist leaders ignoring or under-appreciating others' efforts, organizations require emotionally healthy perfectionists who will praise and reward for work done well. 

Related: It's Science, Baby! Proving the Power of Positive Reinforcement at Work

3. Moving from working to well-oiled

Some leaders may be satisfied if things overall are working. If jobs are getting done and employee satisfaction is above average, then there is no need for additional resources to be put into ineffective improvements.

Non-perfectionist leaders, however, underestimate the impact of experience and details. Take, for example, a home — some may think what makes a home is its location and size. Perfectionists, however, do not need size or beauty to make their homes great. They understand that it is about the experience and the finer things. They attend to the details ensuring every small experience adds up to a great experience — the toilet paper is thick and soft, and so is the hand towel. Their guests leave saying, "Wow, I love using their bathroom. I never get to use the good toilet paper."

Without a healthy perfectionist leadership approach, a team may choose to get regular toilet paper for their guests, unaware of the positive impact a thicker and softer choice would have. However, teams with perfectionist leaders will be resourceful and able to assess which improvements will have the most significant impact on their productivity and can turn the organization from just a working machine to a well-oiled one.

Related: 8 Ways Focusing on Improvement Will Pull Us Out of Any Failure

4. Shifting from favoritism to fairness

Teams led without perfectionist leaders will naturally create environments of favoritism. As we are still beginning to realize the unconscious bias we have towards people like us and those we like, people of great talent and productivity feel ignored, unseen and underappreciated. This inevitably leads to either dissatisfied and divided teams and, ultimately, turnover.

Leaders who can create environments of fairness where everyone feels equally treated will be able to form healthier and stronger teams. They will ensure processes of raises, vacations, and other highly valued work-related items will go through fair processes in which favoritism is not sensed.

Although it is very well possible that every raise and promotion is given to the "right" person, many organizations do not have the clarity or transparency about how these decisions are made. The resulting perceived unfairness or lack of clear markers and a system leave team members disgruntled, less loyal to the team and less productive. Perfectionist leaders can create safe and predictable environments where team members know how to thrive and progress.

Related: Four Ways to Foster Fairness in the Workplace

Calling for perfectionist leadership

If you have been considered a perfectionist (and with less than affirming remarks), know that your leadership may not only be helpful but actually necessary. At their best, perfectionist leaders see their organization's imperfections, work, and team and provide constructive feedback and a relentless drive toward a better, if not perfect, end. Perfectionist leaders can not only raise productivity, but they can also raise the quality of the product or their team.

If you do not relate to the perfectionist's strengths and values, then make sure to find a healthy leader you can trust and invite them onto your team. As any project becomes more complex, and as any team grows, you will need someone to oversee the details and people that may slowly fade out of your periphery. Perfectionist leaders will ensure those under them will execute all tasks with precision and quality and feel fairly treated and praised regularly.

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