when perfectionism becomes a problem

A perfect mess: when perfectionism becomes a problem

Robert McGarvey

Perpectionism – insisting every little detail be done exactly so – may be the entrepreneur’s biggest management problem. You’re fighting hard to build a winning business, and you know the competition is tough, but, appropriate as that mind-set is, too often it translates into overly high demands on staff.

“So many entrepreneurs feel personally responsible for every job, from sealing boxes in the warehouse to refilling the copier’s paper tray. They have difficulty passing on authority to employees. Combine that with the entrepreneur’s commitment to making the business succeed, and it’s a prescription for perfectionism,” says David Newton, a business professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and a consultant to small businesses. “I see it all the time – so many entrepreneurs have zero tolerance for deviation from their expectations about how a task should be done. That definitely hurts a business’s growth.”

Just what’s wrong with placing high demands on employees? Nothing at all. A deep commitment to excellence is an essential ingredient in building a thriving business. But perfectionism is different. Companies thrive when they do the important things right, but perfectionists “get sidetracked by trying to get every detail perfect. The Irony is that this kind of perfectionism frequently causes imperfection,” says Ken Lloyd, an organizational behavior consultant in Encino, California. “By concentrating on little things, you may miss bigger things – like deadlines – entirely.”

Deadlines are apt to get missed because employees – particularly in thinly staffed entrepreneurial companies – simply don’t have time to buff and polish all the minutiae. “Many entrepreneurs impose the same standards they hold themselves to,” says Newton. “Since the entrepreneur is willing to skip lunches, stay until midnight and work Saturdays, he thinks his workers should, too, if that’s what it takes to do perfect, work.”

It won’t happen, not even with good, talented people. That’s because it is unrealistic to expect employees to put in 60-hour workweeks or dive into every assigned job with high spirits. The business is yours, not theirs, and of course you will eagerly put in the hours needed to make it fly. But no employee is apt to feel the same passion, not unless sizable rewards are the carrot.

Yet even when employees get incentives, managerial perfectionism still inevitably backfires. Plainly put, the perfectionist boss drives his or her workers nuts, and their work suffers as a consequence. “When the boss is a perfectionist, employees fear making mistakes,” says Lloyd. Their fear paralyzes activity – or at least slows it dramatically.

Then, too, an ever-watchful boss – no matter how well-intentioned – will be seen as a meddler, and that constant “over the shoulder” presence is guaranteed to rocket employees, stress levels through the ceiling. The up-shot? Their performance and job quality drop, and their anxiety rises.

Worse still, a perfectionist boss drives away the very employees he most wants and needs to keep,” says Lloyd. “Employees who are innovative and creative will leave because they aren’t given room to freely exercise their talents. Only the plodders will stay on board.”

And therein lies another irony of perfectionism: In the quest to build picture-perfect company, entrepreneurs can undo their own efforts and stymie their business’s growth. “What potential investors and venture capitalists want to see is a business with a solid team of employees. Very few investors will back a one-man band,” says Newton. For the entrepreneur intent on growth, the lesson is plain: “Hire – and retain – highly capable people. When an investor sees that sort o team, he’s much more optimistic about the business’s future.”

Even if internally funded growth is your strategy, there are sharp limits on how big a business grow without a solid team. “You need good, hard-working people to sustain Tong, term growth,” says Newton. “That’s an unavoidable fact.”


Convinced perfectionism is a barrier to building a thriving company? There’s no mystery to the cure, say the experts. “Hire good employees, delegate responsibility, then back off and let people do their jobs,” says Newton. “You may have to delegate, then force yourself to dose your eyes and not watch the employees doing their jobs.” By all means, brief workers when handing out assignments, but once that’s done, limit your role to quietly awaiting die outcome.

It may be hardest to avert your eyes from die tasks where your own skills are weakest. “The entrepreneur needs to trust employees to do the tasks for which he himself lacks internal standards as to how well it should be done. It’s in those cases, too, where entrepreneurial perfectionism often is highest,” says Lloyd. For instance, he says, “an entrepreneur who is weak on paperwork will often set unrealistic standards for those he hires to handle it. That’s because he doesn’t have a clue how good is good enough.”

How to know if your employees are producing the quality work you need when you lack the internal bearings to judge? Go with their judgment, then stay open to feedback from customers, vendors or anybody in a position to judge. Don’t passively await feedback; seek it out, and ask questions.

The starting point in overcoming perfectionism, then, boils down to simply trusting your workers to do their jobs well. “Letting go is tough for an entrepreneur,” says Christopher Hegarty, a Novato, California, management consultant. “But it’s an essential step in growing a business.’

That said, don’t make the other entrepreneurial management mistake: handing off crucial jobs to employees too quickly. Building trust takes time. For you, this means watching your people do ever more important jobs well and giving more responsibility as employees earn it.

And don’t forget that employees will be watching you, too. Will you nit-pick their efforts? Mother hen them? Do that, and they may respond by “delegating upward,” meaning they’ll push back decision-making and the hard work onto you. Instead, give them whole jobs – small ones, initially – and let them run freely. “As they successfully complete jobs, their confidence will increase, as will your confidence in them,” says Hegarty. “Soon, you will confidently be giving them much bigger jobs – which they will confidently do.”

Will there be stumbles along the way? Possibly. But, by going slowly and handing employees increased responsibility in measured doses, you’re minimizing the risks of catastrophe while building the foundation that will let your business bloom.

Robert McGarvey writes on business psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, e-mail

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