Have you ever marvelled at how other people seem to get so much done, and then found yourself looking over the shoulders of your staff to make sure they're doing it right? Do you stop delegating as soon as someone slips up?
Among the executives who turn up in my office with stress-related complaints these are common themes. It's what is known in my trade as perfectionism.
When I challenge my patients with this idea, they typically can see nothing wrong with perfectionism. Surely it's a good thing to take pride in your work, and your organisation, they respond. My role is to ensure that every piece of work I put out is flawless, isn't it?
My answer is this: it's a fine line.
Yes, it is important and valuable to get things right. Where perfectionists lose themselves is that they lose sight of what really matters. For example, a perfectionist might get pedantic about the phrasing of language in documents, but there are many different ways to say the same thing. Something that sounds perfect to one person may not sound right to the next.
Then there is strategic planning; you can only plan for so many contingencies. Too much time planning leads to paralysis – nothing gets done because you are still sweating over the details.
And finally, there is the impact you have on others. Perfectionists can create an environment of anxiety and disempowerment. Why? Because co-workers fear that any action they take will be the wrong action.
It's actually quite easy to check if you are a perfectionist. Here's a quick test:
Everything always has to be exactly right before I will let go of it.
I get frustrated when co-workers don’t do things as well as I would do them.
I keep thinking about how I could have done something better, long after I finish it.
I go to bed replaying what I’ve done.
People don’t come to me for advice.
People leave my team, saying I’m too hard on them
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what needs to be done.
People should come to work fully equipped to perform their duties and not need support or training.
The more "agrees" and "strongly agrees" you give yourself, the more of a problem you have.
The costs of being a perfectionist are high. You live feeling anxious a lot of the time. Anxiety causes fatigue, weakens the immune system, and increases the risk of heart disease and other illnesses. You don't enjoy what you are doing at any one moment because you're always worried about what's next, or what could go wrong. And you also run the risk of damaging important relationships by making unreasonable demands on others. This can happen at work, socially and at home.
There's good news here. Take a look at your perfectionist tendencies and take action. Training, coaching or psychological support will help you balance the good aspects of your perfectionism with the needs to look after other aspects of your life. And the sooner you intervene the easier the change will be, and the better the outcome.
Dr Simon Kinsella is an executive director of Institute of Performance and Wellbeing. As a clinical psychologist with 20 years' experience, he has delivered more than 30,000 hours of executive coaching, psychotherapy, mentoring and supervision. He has also delivered specialist training, and provided expert evidence in court.