Perfect is the Word

‘The closest to perfection a person ever comes is when he fills out a job application form.’      Stanley J. Randall


That quote made me laugh. It’s so true!! Having looked at various CVs and application forms in my time, I can attest to that statement being a fact.


Perfection is a curious thing. We’ve talked quite a bit about it this week. We can aspire for perfection and that in itself is a wonderful thing. Where things to start to get murky is when we ask, what is perfect? Its definition varies for everyone, and almost 100% likely, what perfection looks like will change, thereby moving those goal posts. Much as it should be aspirational, I wonder if it can also be horrifically overwhelming a goal to constantly try and attain and incredibly burdensome?


Having now been a coach for several years, and even more having worked in business for nearly 20 years (I know, I look like I’m still 25…), I can safely say that I have never seen perfection at work. This isn’t to say that I worked in – in fact the very opposite. I was surrounded by successful, flourishing businesses and people. However, no matter how excellent the quality of work I saw, there was never perfection, whatever perfection looks like. And yet, why do people keep striving for it to the point of burnout and ridiculousness? The amount of clients with whom I work, who display these tendencies is really high, and they keep coming.


So what might a perfectionist look like?[1]


  • All or nothing thinking – will accept nothing less than perfection
  • Critical Eye – more critical of themselves and of others
  • Push vs Pull – tend to be pushed towards a goal for fear of not reaching it
  • Unrealistic Standards – goals are often not reasonable
  • Focus on Results – no enjoyment of the process of growing
  • Depressed by Unmet Goals – beat themselves up & wallow in negative if goals are not met
  • Fear of Failure – petrified of failing which in turns pushes them to strive for more perfection
  • Defensiveness – take criticism badly
  • Low Self-Esteem – tend to be self-critical and unhappy


Case Study


‘I need some help to getting my team to raise their standards. The quality of work is fine but it could be so much better. They are successful on their own and their teams are performing well but I just don’t think that they are delivering as well as I expect them too.’ This was the opening conversation with T when we starting our coaching process. On the surface, it seemed like a leadership/teamwork focus for us. However, as our conversation continued, it was clear that T had a far bigger problem in hand.


Nothing was good enough for her – the performance from her team, the demands she made of herself and of people in other divisions. From a 360 survey I did, she was known for being hypercritical, aggressive, domineering, a micro manager who pushed and pushed her various teams and did not listen well. Her quest for perfection stalled delivery on all projects including the most menial of tasks. Her relationships at work were fractured, as they were at home. She rarely made it back home till past midnight almost every night and weekends were spent working too.


The irony of it all being that her performance started to suffer because no one was delivering because all their work had to be checked by her and usually completely redone. The reality was that her senior team were extremely successful in their own right and were doing an excellent job. The business was on the up and up and hired her to take it even further. However, all she ended up doing was reduce excellent productivity which led to chaos and poor results.


As we worked through the challenges, T fully admitted to being a perfectionist. She felt that it accurately reflected her and she could not understand why anyone would not want to be a perfectionist. In fact, she openly scoffed at those who shied away from the label, as if to say their work would be less than mediocre. So focused on her version of the bigger picture of achieving perfection, she lost sight of the actual bigger picture, which was to deliver on her mandate to a high, but not perfect standard.


Once T started to look at her thought process re: perfectionism and her need for it with a different lense, it started to make more sense to her. And our work started to reap rewards. It wasn’t an easy journey and at times, we could see T lapse back into old thinking but she was determined to change the outcomes, and therefore needed to change her thinking.


So how can you help beat perfectionism?


Rather than describe it myself, I attach here an excellent article on the very subject. In short:


  • Be a healthy perfectionist, not a neurotic one
  • Remove the all or nothing mindset
  • Avoid the perfectionist’s mindset, ie go for 80/20
  • Learn to respect and love yourself
  • Use your ideals as guides not absolutes
  • Value your relationships
  • Celebrate every progress, success and failure
  • Delegate and let go


It isn’t very easy to let go of the need to be perfect and achieve perfection. This article merely skims the surface. The reasons why people strive for perfection really vary and those need to be addressed too. However, with this brief introduction, I hope you will see that perfectionism itself will not necessarily lead to the achievement of your goals and even if they are achieved, at what cost?


‘If you look for perfection, you'll never be content. ‘

Leo Tolstoy





Karen Kwong is a highly experienced executive & business coach who has worked with start-ups and social enterprises through to large established corporates (including FTSE100 companies) across a number of industries including financial services, engineering, retail and media & communications. She also advises boards on their dynamics. Added to this, she spent almost twenty years working at a senior level in fund management. She also has a Masters in Organisational Psychology. For more please see here or contact her at:



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