Don’t Let Perfection Bully You

Let me tell you a story. A few years ago, I was coaching an executive who was working his leadership edge of Perfection. He was a superstar and his success had resulted in a promotion from leading one business unit, to a position that included two additional brands. His responsibility load had tripled.

The leadership style he had worked fine when the teams under his care were fewer in number, but things changed when his responsibilities grew. He had a reserved and respectful style, and an ‘if they don’t hear from me, they know they are doing well’ philosophy. This worked well with one business to run, but with the additional teams, it quickly turned into people craving input and feedback time with him, that he no longer had available. Not long into this transition, he learned that his most talented people had lost confidence in where they stood, and were becoming generally insecure and hesitant about taking initiative and making decisions without him.

As we learned more about this dynamic from his 360 assessment results, I suggested that he invest time in letting his prized people know what they were doing well. He was horrified. ‘Shannon, are you suggesting that I go around praising people? That’s just not how I operate.’

An allergic reaction to praise is often a doorway into something useful.

Why such a reaction? I asked him more about his relationship to ‘praise’ and acknowledging others, and here is what we learned. Essentially, trumpets had to be playing to justify a simple ‘atta-boy’ for himself or anyone else. We found that underneath this gentle exterior there were extraordinary standards of excellence; and, with them came an internal monster-boss with a familiar refrain that sounded something like this:

‘You aren’t seriously considering slowing down or easing up to pat yourself on the back for a milestone. What is that anyway? That would be stupid and irresponsible. You get a pat when you’ve actually done something worth noticing. And if you waste time with all that useless praise, you will get distracted and fail. In fact you’re already well on your way to failure with all this time you are wasting just thinking about a meaningless milestone!’

Perfection: Nourishing Supporter or Drill Sergeant Bully?

The seeds of Perfection are actually the gifts of achievement: high standards and the drive to attain them. When fed and watered with adult perspective, the kind that acknowledges milestone moments, these seeds can flourish into extraordinary results.
The other persona of Perfection is something closer to an internal drill sergeant who typically sounds an awful lot like a bully.

Most of us have some version of an ‘inner bully’ running in our personal operating system. In this talk, Cynthia Loy Darst gives a gorgeous presentation showing us how to think about and work with this often-troublesome Bully Within. She wisely advises us to build a stronger, healthier relationship with that part of ourselves.

Keep in mind the following tips as you take this on:

  • Notice the Allergic Reaction. Stop and breathe. Slow it down so you can notice the voice that’s happening, whether it’s screaming at us, or whining to us, or just getting a little bit nasty. Recognize the reaction as a doorway into your own greatness.
  • Install a Dial. Find a way to quiet that voice. So you can get closer to what it is trying to tell you. Perfection, and leadership edges like it, need a dial. They are an essential part of your creative process and your own personal success formula, so we don’t want to turn them off. The problem comes when the inner bully gets hold of it, and turns an admirable commitment into something compulsive and destructive.
  • Turn the Adversary into an Ally. The way to harvest the seed of greatness is to stay in relationship with the bully. Do this with relentless curiosity. Ask, “What does it really want?” For Perfection, it is often a deeply held commitment to excellence.

Here are questions to get you started:
1. What situations invite your inner bully to speak up and sound off?

2. What would be different about your life if that voice championed you instead of bullied you?

Please leave me your answers in the comments section below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


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