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Coach Carol: Professional perfectionism

19th Jun 2009
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This week, personal development coach, chartered accountant and NLP practitioner Carol McLachlan explains why it's not always a good idea to strive for perfection.

As an accountant, you’re a consummate professional and pride yourself on high standards of technical knowledge, corporate service and professional conduct. You aim high, and you’re the ultimate trusted advisor – but are you also a professional perfectionist?

Cast your mind back to my March article for AccountingWEB.co.uk, ‘Accountants aren’t boring and we can prove it!’ We took just one measure of psychological type and discovered a substantial proportion of accountants profiled within a surprisingly narrow range. Perhaps less surprising, given that many of us were lured in by an affinity for numbers, analysis and logic, as opposed to developing our creative, intuitive and aesthetic talents (which we have of course, honed as our careers have matured).

‘Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralising’- H. Braiker
This profile does, of course, suggest a leaning towards perfectionism, but let’s be clear: perfectionism is not the same as striving for excellence. While the high achiever enjoys the journey, the perfectionist hangs on in there, only for the outcome. Both have drive and commitment, but the top performer’s comes from within, while the perfectionist is often motivated by self doubt, worry, fear of failure.

‘No one is perfect, that's why pencils have erasers’

Perfection as the only measure translates into paralysis. Fear of failing to reach a rigid goal results in lack of motivation to start and to persevere, to try out new ways of operating, to learn new skills and to embrace change. Ultimately, it leads to stagnation and immobility.

As the perfectionist needs to have everything in place before they begin, they become inflexible, lack spontaneity and become vulnerable to the dreaded curse of procrastination.

‘To escape criticism - do nothing, say nothing, be nothing’ - E. Hubbard
Many perfectionists take criticism personally and respond defensively. High performers, on the other hand, accept that making mistakes and risking failure are integral to the achievement process. They’ll see less than perfect results as opportunities for growth, learning and understanding.

‘Always live up to your standards - by lowering them, if necessary’- M. McLaughlin
Beware of ‘all or nothing’ thinking. Perfectionists see most experiences as good or bad, perfect or imperfect, success or failure; there are no in betweens. If this sounds like you, try reframing your ‘glass half empty’ approach and seek out positives. So for ‘we failed to meet the deadline’, an effective reframe might be: ‘Despite the fact that the accounts were full of holes, we did a great job, contained costs and managed to get 90% complete before the closing meeting’. 

When you aim for perfection, you discover it's a moving target - George Fisher
We all know the SMART mnemonic, but do we pay as much attention to the achievable and realistic as we do to the measured and time-framed?  Unrealistic expectations lead to a vicious circle of ‘failure’, damaged self-esteem, despair.

Reasonable, realistic goals, on the other hand, put less than perfect results in a different, more positive light. Top performers need professional stretch, so choose standards that are high but also achievable.

The bottom line
Misplaced perfectionism can damage your health. Unrealistic demands mean anxiety, stress, long hours, work/life imbalance. Perfectionism can also be a serious immobiliser.

If that’s not enough, let Rosaynn Carter exhort you further: “Once you accept the fact that you’re not perfect then you develop some confidence”. Now that’s an incentive.

Carol McLachlan FCA
theaccountantscoach.com
Email: [email protected]

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