“THIS” was your best friend… as a leader, it’s your worst enemy

Leadership | June 28, 2022

Your high standards are getting in your way

“No one wants to work with me,” said Suni, co-founder of a rapidly growing tech company. Every conversation with a team member seemed to end in an argument, which mystified her. “I don’t get it.”

“Yeah, I have high standards,” she continued. “But I don’t ask anything of my employees that I don’t ask of myself.”

When it was just her co-founder and a couple team members, it was awkward, but doable—people worked around her, through the other co-founder. Now that the team had grown to 50 people, it was a different story.

Suni’s mantra was: High standards, no compromise. She had steadily alienated her people, to the point where they actively avoided her.

That’s when her co-founder hired me to help.

Like many leaders, Suni had worn uncompromising expectations as a badge of honor for so long, she couldn’t see how it was impeding her company’s success.

In Suni’s case, what she called high standards—and what I’d call perfectionism—caused her to shoot down her people’s ideas. Every. Single. Time. When she was around, there was no room for anyone else’s contributions. 

I’m not saying don’t have high standards.

What I am saying is: recognize when they’re the bottleneck. 

This can be hard. Many self-described perfectionists proclaim it as their biggest failing. And, let’s be honest: Deep down, they’re proud.

Let me rephrase that: we’re proud. As a recovering perfectionist, I get it. 

Perfectionism doesn’t come from nowhere.

Many times, that striving for perfection moved us up the ladder. It got us to the goal, and the accolades, whether it was a promotion, a project finished on time and under budget, or simply recognition by our peers.

With all the positive reinforcement, that likely started well before adulthood, associated with a pat on the head and a story about receiving love and approval, it became a survival mechanism, a pattern that we become loathe to change, for fear that we’ll stop that forward movement. That we’ll stop getting approval.

And it does workto a point. 

High, uncompromising standards can hold us prisoner to all-or-nothing thinking. No room for error means that there’s intense pressure to get everything right all of the time, which is simply impossible. 

And because many perfectionists equate perfectionism with the secret behind their success, it can feel near impossible—even painful—to consider allowing anything less than our idea of “perfect.” 

A twisting feeling deep in your gut when you notice a mistake, no matter how small. Or tossing and turning at night when things “weren’t quite right” the day or week before.

Or, like Suni, the thought of “lowering” her standards? Inconceivable.

However, when micromanaging, the details get in the way of big goals—what you really want to achieve as a leader and in life—it’s time to reassess.

A few weeks ago, my team posted a job listing for a new Mettaworks coach. Scanning it, nothing less than fury bubbled to the surface. The listing wasn’t bad—but none of it was the way I would’ve done it.

It didn’t sound like me, and there were typoes…! Tension surged through my body. It was enough to bring me to my feet, and pacing around my office.

This represents me… People have already read this!

Feeling the extreme reaction I was experiencing, I knew to pause and take a moment to gain perspective. The anger and anxiety I felt was totally out of proportion to the situation.

Breathe… No one is going to die here, Rachel. It’s an ad. 

And: this is the intensity of emotion that spikes when we have a deeply entrenched mechanism or pattern. Even when the stakes are low, the stress is very real. (The intensity of your emotional reaction is actually a sign that there is a survival mechanism at work behind the scenes.)

Here’s the secret: this is not about ditching or contradicting your survival mechanisms. I am all about having a healthy respect and even reverence for the patterns that have protected and helped us for years. 

The idea is to expand our thinking, shift our behavior, so that we have the space to choose how we want to respond rather than simply handing our patterns the steering wheel. 

This means that you can maintain high standards and delegate. It is actually a form of self-compassion—and it gives your team independence to excel without micromanaging.

Through our work together, Suni was able to drive to the results she wanted while gaining buy-in and alignment with her people. She was able to decide which battles she wanted to fight and bring a less critical, more collaborative, voice to all conversations. People started seeking her out instead of working around her. And guess what – performance increased as a result of her letting go!

How do we start? Set clear criteria for success as well as offer context as to why the goal is important. Clarify where the team has autonomy and where they don’t. Outline the internal milestones, then set status meetings around those.

Don’t just let your people run with it willy nilly. Set clear expectations—AND then get out of their way.

Observe their progress and respond—don’t be tempted to do in their place. The more you follow this path, the more trust you build with your team. And (surprise) you might just feel better, too.

Sometimes it might feel like perfectionism got you where you are… but it won’t get you to your next level. Putting excellence and ease within reach starts by scheduling your complimentary discovery call with a MettaWorks coach.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant