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Entrepreneurs and The Perfection Trap

Striving to be perfect keeps you riveted on details, distracting you from the big-picture orientation that’s expected when you reach a senior position

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In How Women Rise, my co-author Marshall Goldsmith and I identify the habits or behaviors most likely to get in successful women's way as they seek to move higher or take on bigger responsibilities. Since the book was published, I've talked with thousands of women who identify with these behaviors. And I've found that the Perfection Trap, habit #7 in the book, is the most problematic behavior for women entrepreneurs.

In our experience, women are especially vulnerable to the perfection trap, the belief that they will succeed if they do their job perfectly and never mess anything up. While women, in general, tend to be seen as better leaders than men, they are often undermined by their tendency to give themselves a hard time, a habit rooted in the desire to be perfect. The result is that even high-achieving women tend to take failures deeply to heart, get tangled up in self-blame, and stew over mistakes instead of moving on.

One reason is so prone to the perfection traps is that being extremely conscientious often helps them get to a certain level. This is especially true for women starting a business. Attention to detail is essential to developing a service or product and being professional about how you present and deliver it give you a real head start. Striving to dot every I and cross every t is also a sign that you take your work seriously and aspire to even greater levels of success.

However, the quest for perfection can get in the way when your business is growing. You may need to experiment with new approaches, test new markets and new ideas and bring in new people. Seeking perfection as can make you risk-averse as you seek to expand, which is a good way to remain stuck.

We've seen some other problems crop up with talented and dedicated women who can't let go of their quest for perfection. For example:

"    Striving to be perfect creates stress, for you and for those around you, because it's based on expectations that human beings may occasionally live up to but which cannot be sustained over time.
"    Striving to be perfect keeps you riveted on details, distracting you from the big-picture orientation that's expected when you reach a senior position.
"    Striving to be perfect creates a negative mindset in which you're bothered by every little thing that goes wrong since even a small mistake can "ruin" the whole. And negativity is never valued in a leader.
"    Striving to be perfect sets you up for disappointment for the simple reason that it's unrealistic. You, and the people who work with and for you will never be perfect--at least as long as you live on planet earth.
Why women?

Why are women often vulnerable to this desire to be perfect? Or to the belief that if they're not perfect, they are somehow unworthy? Experience and research suggest two reasons. First, gender expectations often start in childhood. And second, those expectations often get reinforced in the workplace.

Girls tend to be rewarded for being obedient daughters and excellent students, while boys are given more latitude. People will often speak fondly about a naughty little boy. He's considered charming, amusing and adorable. That's especially true if he's good at sports, where cutting corners and showboating is routinely rewarded, along with bending the rules in order to score points.

By contrast, girls who fail to conform to expected standards don't get much of a break. Schools are far more likely to penalize girls for acting out and for aggressive behaviors such as fighting. With boys, these behaviors are often dismissed as a testosterone spurt, but they're viewed as disgraceful in girls. These attitudes often prevail even in families and schools committed to gender equality.

Such expectations can prompt girls to seek approval by striving to get everything right and avoiding mistakes. In other words, by trying to be perfect. Girls consistently average higher grades than boys, in part because they develop earlier but also in part because doing so is the surest way to earn approval. It's not that boys don't get rewarded for good grades, but the boys who receive the most praise are usually the sports stars. As athletes, they're are expected to be assertive, show confidence, stand out from the pack and be bold. After all, a Hail Mary pass is admired even when it fails to hit its intended receiver. What's the greatest praise an athlete can receive?

That he dominated. Valedictorians are never described in those terms.

Executive coach Carlos Marin observes a similar pattern in organizations. "Coaching data and the psychometric surveys we deliver when doing assessments suggest that men at the executive level are most likely to rewarded for daring and risk-taking," he says. "Women at similar levels are most likely to be rewarded for precision and correctness."

The upshot is that many of the senior women Carlos and his team work with tend to internalize the expectation that they be conscientious and precise. "This can result in an excessive fear of making mistakes that shows up in many different ways. For example, even in high-stakes executive team meetings, men tend to be comfortable making statements they haven't necessarily thought through, or even stupid statements. But if a woman says something stupid, she'll be consumed by embarrassment, even shame, and have a hard time letting it go. She might decide to avoid this by keeping her mouth shut in the future. And then she'll be criticized for being too cautious or not contributing enough."

This fear of making mistakes is of course compounded by the fact that, as a woman, your mistakes are often viewed more critically in a heavily male organizational culture. Your errors may be seized upon as proof that women in general can't make the grade, which can affect how other women in the company are viewed. This compounds the guilt you feel over having made a mistake--and over not being perfect.

The process is intensified if you're a member of a minority. In the US, African American women often feel the burden of carrying the expectations of their entire community on their shoulders, as do immigrants from many cultures in Europe, North America and Asia. Women in India, at home and abroad, may feel pressure not just to be the perfect employee and high performer, but the perfect daughter-in-law, constantly trying to appease a family that is skeptical of her every move. If you're in one of these situations, learning to let go of the desire to be perfect assumes a special urgency lest you sink under the weight of expectations. In order to rise, you'll have to lay your burden down.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Sally Helgesen

The author is Speaker and Leadership Consultant

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