Prescription for a Perfectionist Detox

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Jack’s boss knew he needed help. The symptoms were all there…

  • His employees and peers waited days for a response to an email. They often had to call and leave a message as well before he would get back to them.
  • His employees felt underutilized and morale was at an all-time low.
  • His team was reactionary, and didn’t seem to be very proactive.
  • He lost two key employees who left for jobs that offered “more opportunity for growth.”
As I began to explore the root cause of the issues, the culprit became obvious: he was an extreme perfectionist. Jack loved the technical details of his job. The people part of the job? Not so much. He would dig in and work on projects himself, and only throw a few tasks at his team. He didn’t have many team meetings, so planning and proactive strategies were rarely discussed. And as he became more consumed by a project, he would literally forget about everyone else.  

I run into a lot of overachievers and perfectionists in my coaching work—and that’s not surprising, since senior level people have typically been rewarded, in past jobs, for being exacting and results oriented.  But inevitably, as they get promoted a few times, this strength turns into their weakness, when they become leaders of one or more teams. Instead of letting their direct reports handle projects and solve problems, the perfectionist can’t resist being lured deep into the tantalizing details, where they are most comfortable and intellectually challenged. 

Reasons for this tight grip can range from not trusting their direct reports, to lacking the skills or interest in managing people. Regardless, it must be fixed before it becomes a career derailer. 

If you are a perfectionist leader, here is a detox to cleanse your old habits and make way for new leader behaviors.  Pretend you are going on a month-long vacation, during which you will have limited ability to connect to your team. Answer the following questions:
  • Who will attend meetings in your place? (They will attend and report back on critical details. They may have to make decisions on your behalf, if an issue is time sensitive.)
  • Who can take over as “point person” on the projects you are working on? If they can’t take on the whole project, who else can they involve? And if you are the only person who can lead the project, what major pieces can they work on in your absence?
  • What reports do you put together and who can do them in your place?
  • Who can represent you to customers, vendors and other key stakeholders?
  • Who can make the presentation you were going to make? Who is closest to the topic and could benefit from the visibility?
  • Now, go back over the questions and remove the vacation. Why aren’t you doing some of this now?  Who could benefit from additional growth opportunities?  

I wouldn’t be surprised if you are thinking, “But I’m the only one who can do these things!” Or, “My employees are too busy!” Or, “They aren’t ready for these responsibilities.”  All of these things may be true—or partly true. But unless you take steps to let go, you will always be the only one who can do the work—and you will be exposed as a poor leader. And poor leaders usually derail. 

If you are ready to start prying your fingers off of the technical work you should be delegating, here is a step-by-step guide to help you feel more comfortable: 

  1. Determine a whole piece of work that you can delegate—in other words, total responsibility and accountability, not just a task.
  2. Explain the outcome you are looking for in as much detail as possible. Don’t be prescriptive about each step in how they get results, but be clear about what a successful outcome will look like. For example, “Sales will participate in figuring out the solution, it won’t cost more than X, and we will be able to get feedback on the solution during our distributor meeting in January, before we launch it.”
  3. Build in check points, so you can make sure the work is on track and you can weigh in with suggestions and coaching. “Could you give me regular updates during our regular one-on-one meetings?”
You may ask, “But what will I do if I let go of this detail?” Don’t worry, there will be plenty of pent up demand for what you should have been doing…holding planning meetings with your staff, holding one-on-one meetings with your direct reports so they can get guidance and feedback, helping your team identify needed process improvements, reaching out to internal and external customers to resolve cross-functional problems, proactive communications to your employees…don’t worry there’s plenty to do.  

If you’re tempted to go back to your old perfectionist habits, keep in mind that you may find yourself on a permanent vacation, once you’ve been tagged a perfectionist manager who is a bottle neck to the team. 


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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