Perfection-busting from an ex-ballet dancer

Female ballet dancer

© nanettegrebe –

A friend of a business contact excitedly told us about her new hire, capping off this person’s talents with: ”And, you know, she’s a perfectionist; she said so and so did her last boss…I’ll have nothing to worry about…”

Oh yes, you do.

I was disappointed for my friend’s friend and told her so. What I know for sure is if her new hire is really a perfectionist, it was only a matter of time before this person became office enemy #1.

Perfectionists are obsessed with being perfect. In their quest, they push, shove and scream at others to get their way – either overtly or in more passive ways. Hello micro-managers and workaholics!

Inevitably, they alienate those around them who can never meet their false standards. To be sure, there’s a difference in working towards excellence and demanding perfection.

My experience of perfectionism started when I was four and ended eight years later, while a classical ballet dancer. During that time, I learned the perfectionist’s code which I’ve since experienced, at times, in some workplaces:

• Your best is not good enough because you can always improve
• Whatever you do, it will never be enough
• When the bar (or barre) is set, it will keep being raised

In the end, I burned out. Besides, my physique just wasn’t good enough, they said. My feet arches weren’t high enough and – more importantly – I wasn’t lean enough. This was despite stretching and arching my feet hundreds of times each day and being slightly underweight.

Oh yes, by that stage, I was also a highly awarded dancer.

Perfectionists in the workplace are damaging to the team spirit because, just like my former ballet mesdames, they’re on the look out for what’s wrong. They’ll find it and likely communicate their findings in crushing ways. Cue the team alienation.

If there’s a perfectionist in your midst, you’ll need some coping strategies. For starters, it’s probably best to decide if you want to be right or happy. After all, perfectionists have fragile egos and can be impossible if you take them on head-to-head. You may, instead, choose to state the facts of the situation in question and move on.

A great perfection-busting approach is to adopt a design thinking mindset. It’s one that demands being open to new possibilities and knowing that failure is both elegant and encouraged. Apply it liberally to your workplace culture and watch the perfectionists’ retreat.

  • Share your tips to manage a perfectionist.
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