We’ve suffered because of my perfectionism…

I created ActiveInbox back in 2007, and since we turned into a company in 2010, we’ve doubled our user base every year. But until this year, we’ve never tried any promotion.

Which is insane.

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May I present the evidence: our original DIY ActiveInbox logo from back in the day. Before Google threatened to sue us.

With just a little effort to help new users find us, we could have hired a bigger team much sooner, and developed an awesome product much faster than we did. I routinely beat myself up for the fact that for the first 3 years we existed, there was nothing else like us – we had a much needed product and no competition. So why did I resist doing promotion when it was such a rational choice?

Because I’m a perfectionist.

I know the product is good (users are kind enough to tell us), but for me, it’s never quite as good as I want it to be. And I’m embarrassed to introduce other people to it until we hit that point. But what happens after every major release? I immediately imagine other things that we could improve, and the cycle starts again.

There was also an alternative: to accept investment, so at least we could hire the team to reach true product/market fit much earlier than we did. But even then, I resisted – I wanted to be a ‘great’ founder before I risked their capital.

I’ve just realised I’ve stumbled into the cliche, of “What’s your greatest weakness?” “Oh, I’m a perfectionist”. So often we use it as a humble brag, deep down taking pride in our sophisticated ways. But in reality, it’s deeply detrimental and actually recognised as a psychological illness.

The clinical definition of perfectionism

Psychologists define it as “The over-dependence of self evaluation on the determined pursuit of personally demanding, self-imposed standards in at least one highly salient domain, despite adverse consequences”.

Or, in other words, getting worse results by craving to be unrealistically brilliant.

Perfectionists like myself are often in danger of engaging in a spiral of negativity where failing to meet their standards leads to intense self-criticism, and actually meeting their standards makes them think the standards were just not demanding enough.

The negative perfectionism cycle

Being a perfectionist harms you and your organisation by:

  • Hindering innovation and personal growth

    A perfectionist is more likely to avoid starting a new project, especially for something they aren’t already good at (thus making trying new ideas, or new skills, a rare event):

    • It’s most likely a fear of failure

    • But also, because a perfectionist will have a history of tasks taking longer than they need to, they have every reason to believe the new task will be overwhelming. I’m sure you can relate – if you think it’ll take a month to write a blog post, you won’t be tempted to start when you have a spare hour in the evening.

    (If you’re wondering how a perfectionist like me even started ActiveInbox, it’s because there were no true consequences to it: I was just building it for myself to control my email, and it felt like there was no risk to upload it to the Mozilla Addons store, as people could ’choose’ it without ever me ever having to ask them to do so.)

  • Never delivering on time

    They’re always “nearly finished”, but there’s always “just a few more tweaks”, just to get a little better… so the last 10% takes at least as long as the first 90%.

  • Held back from rising the ranks of management

    They’re generally poor at prioritising (because they believe everything needs more time to be made perfect), and impose their own standards on others, making them hyper critical and poor at delegating.

So should you avoid hiring a perfectionist?

No – they can make amazing team mates. The traits of a perfectionist mean they care about doing a fantastic job, sweating the details and delivering to high standards. And their heart & soul is often in the organisation.

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But their manager, and the organisation as a whole, needs to help them limit their excesses.

(And because hyper competitiveness is now being instilled in our children from a very early age, it’s becoming much more widespread in the workplace as more and more top talent comes with the traits of perfectionism. Being able to manage perfectionists will be the key to getting the best out of your most talented team members.)

4 ways we overcame perfectionism in our team

A little caveat… In certain industries – such as a creative agency – perfectionists are less of a problem, simply because the client budget and deadline rules everything, barely giving them a chance. But for a product company like ours, and for any other non-deadline-driven role, you’ll be helping your entire team by tweaking your management style.

The key thing to remember is that perfectionists have an out-sized fear of failure (to protect their pride or avoid confrontation). So the trick is to give feedback carefully & constructively; build a culture that rewards short-term imperfection in the pursuit of future greatness; and ultimately help people to confront the root of their own anxiety.

1. Ruthless transparency about everyone’s daily progress

Facebook’s own culture is ‘done is better than perfect’, and you could argue they’ve done ok 😉

Whereas perfectionists have a tendency to plan and theorise, to prepare, rather than execute. The best ways to deal with this are:

  • Bundle activity into weekly sprints:

    • Break tasks down into their smallest actionable chunks – if they’re too big, a perfectionist will worry about the different possible approaches and implications of the outcome, whereas small things can just be done.

    • Aim for 1-3 significant tasks per week, as it helps to keep them focused on why it’s important to get them done

      Also, if they are clinging onto the belief that their perfectionism is a good thing, use uncompleted tasks to highlight why its harmed the project. People can only begin to improve when they’ve accepted it’s a problem.

    • Try to give them quantifiable work, as the reduced subjectivity stops them going around in circles.

    • Be sure to celebrate successes (and even not-outright-failures), to reinforce their pride in doing.

      Also, take the opportunities to recap all the recent learning experiences they’ve gained because they executed faster – rapid improvement is something a perfectionist loves.

  • Briefly check progress very regularly. We have a #doing channel on our team chat, and at the start of every day we state what we will do, and at the end of the day, we confront the reality of what we achieved.

2. Focus on the ‘Easy First Milestone’ rather than ‘Big Hairy Project’

Approaching a large new project is a black hole for a perfectionist, because of the scope for over-planning something complex and huge — the big risk is that they’ll avoid even starting.

So instead of thinking about the big project, focus on the most immediate possible deliverable. And in particular, aim to ‘fail fast’: choose a first milestone that, if it were to fail, would mean the entire project or approach could be cancelled (by the way, this is a great prioritisation technique to help you start with the most critical piece of work).

For example, we recently decided that we’d “take 6 months to try content marketing to promote ActiveInbox”. But we began with “we’ll produce 2 posts in 1 week, then using paid media as an expensive shortcut, we’ll see if anyone even reads or shares them – if they don’t, we will not continue”.

Not only have you been smart with resources, you’ve made it much less scary to get started by massively reducing the scope.

The real magic here is being quantified. It becomes much easier for a perfectionist to be happy completing a rough first version of anything, if they know it’ll have a KPI, which they can return to in the future to try to improve it. And usually, that’s all it takes to get the ball rolling.

The Pixar Technique

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If you have a project that isn’t quantifiable, you can still control progress with a technique from Pixar: the Brain Trust. Whenever a director begins a new film, they’re encouraged to bring an incredibly rough draft before the grandee directors of the company (even though it’s deeply uncomfortable to showcase something so badly thought out), who then very candidly provide feedback. By happening so early, it focuses the director’s mind on getting started quickly, and prevents their natural tendency to polish something that might never work.

So, follow the Pixar Technique and schedule a quick meeting with your line manager or higher-up. Present your work in progress as early as you can to kick-start the project and get it out of planning stage asap. If you are worried about taking someone else’s time to cater for a personal weakness, pitch it as an advice and feedback session that will help you get the work done faster.

3. Turn failures into lessons, to keep innovating

The most important thing for an innovative team is to not fear taking calculated risks:

  • By reframing the failure as an opportunity for a lesson, you allow a perfectionist mind to do what it naturally wants to do: improve for the future.

  • Before it becomes a lesson, be discreet. Public criticism is both mortifying, and collective memory about someone’s failure lasts longer than individual memory, making taking a risk much more dangerous for their career in the future.

And always be careful in how you deliver criticism. Because a perfectionist is especially prone to panicked emotional responses when criticised, be objective and business focused rather than personal. Discuss the impact of their decisions or failures solely in relation to the KPIs of the project, rather than them as individuals. And familiarise yourself with the Manager Tools 4 step feedback method which is the best I’ve come across.

As their manager, it’s always worth reminding them that you also share – and thus dilute – their failures; as your role is to remove obstacles that prevent people making their maximum contribution.

4. Be harshly critical of certain mental patterns

Most of a perfectionists traits can be managed, but some are truly unhealthy, and shouldn’t be tolerated.

  • Negative predictions. E.g. “I don’t see the point of this”. It comes from trying to avoid meeting their high standards.

    It’s particularly bad as it’s toxic to others. It demoralises them, and perhaps incites their own fear of failure, spreading perfectionism.

  • All or nothing thinking, and over generalisations. Anticipating the ways they might fail tends to spiral, they make broad strokes.

With both of these, note when they happen. Perhaps break out of the activity to discuss. Then discredit the underlying fear, and recall examples of positivity related to the issue.

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Have you overcome perfectionism, in yourself or a team mate?

If so, I’d love to hear how in the comments!


This was written by Andy Mitchell