But eventually perfectionism can become a liability, says Ellen Taaffe, a clinical associate professor of management and organizations and director of women’s leadership programs at the Kellogg School. It can prevent women from seeking out or being offered new responsibilities.
In a new book, The Mirrored Door: Break Through the Hidden Barrier that Locks Successful Women in Place, Taaffe tackles this conundrum and others. The “mirrored door” of the title, which Taaffe defines as a form of second-guessing about readiness and worthiness common to women throughout their careers, is part of a constellation of dynamics—including outdated workplace cultures—that impede women’s progress and potential.
In this excerpt from her new book, Taaffe first explains why so many high-potential women end up trapped in a cycle of what she calls “preparing to perfection.” Next, she offers four tips for moving forward more comfortably with uncertainty and imperfection.
We are frequently coached to prepare to perfection. We quickly learn the expectations around what is needed in a project, for a meeting, and to progress. Those who like to prepare relish the opportunity because it is squarely in their control. When we are well prepared, we’ve got the answers. Clients and senior leaders begin to count on us, knowing we’ve done the work. It’s a major success factor, especially early in our careers, when getting things done well and assessing all the drivers, derailers, and details of a work product matter. We are acknowledged, appreciated, and asked again and again to participate in others’ workstreams.
We soon learn to identify as the person who knows their stuff. We continue to take on more. We are respected as a doer, expert, and project leader. We become successful within a team or organization. But that success has an underbelly when our perfectionism pigeonholes us as the preparer or the worker bee. It can lead to several perilous challenges.
First, we can find ourselves preparing for others to shine in the spotlight and inadvertently being hidden when the work is presented. Second, the workload can become overwhelming. We make the time in our day, and usually night, to prepare. Eventually, that preparation may dominate our time while other opportunities to grow are assigned elsewhere. Third, our preparation becomes our coping mechanism. When we don’t have time to do the usual preparation, anxiety can kick in, and we may avoid taking advantage of opportunities. Preparation gives us a boost, making us feel and appear competent. It gives us a bit more control and certainty in our areas of focus, increasing our chances of success. We rely on it. We don’t as readily see that our experience gets us there too, that we have grown our skills and competencies. We think we need more preparation than we do to be perfect in every meeting. Fourth, many women I have coached find they no longer have the time to do what they once did, but preparing to perfection is so ingrained that their fear grows. It steals the development of our skill to think on our feet, to be able to answer with a framework of what we know instead of the details of heavy-duty analysis.
Lastly, having a reputation of being prepared to perfection is not enough as we aspire to leadership roles. Leaders must be able to decide a course of action with limited information. When we always depend on hours of preparation, we don’t learn how to move forward with partial information and the success or failure that results. The well-intentioned, overprepared woman can easily get tagged as great to have on the team but not to lead it. Worse yet, our high standards may make us overly critical of those we are leading and developing. Instead of coaching others to excel, we may fall prey to micromanagement, another perilous reputation.
If you see yourself in any part of the preparing to perfection strategy, you are not alone. Many successful women leaders have faced or continue to face this and find the courage to open the mirrored door. Research shows that women cope with perfectionism by managing the paradox of their internal expectations and their belief of what society, work, and family expect. Through in-depth interviews of demographically diverse women, one study showed that perfectionism is experienced uniquely and that women found their ways within the constraints of their cultural norms. While there are no cookie-cutter solutions, I recommend several areas to consider as you let go of or lighten up on this success strategy.
Reflect on your success
Years of preparing to perfection can build into a feeling that enough is enough. When you reflect on your quest for perfection and your purpose and goals, you will likely see that something’s got to give. Let’s be sure that isn’t your career, your well-being, or the major contribution you make to your work and family. One way to recover from perfectionism is to adopt a growth mindset instead of a fixed one. Reflection is the key to getting there. It will help you objectively see your own progress and learning. If you find yourself overthinking something, dissect and reflect on the facts, your interpretation, and what else could be going on. Consider if there is follow-up to move you out of rumination so you can let go of unproductive spinning.
When my female clients proactively take time to reflect on their successes over time, they recognize they have accomplished more, grown stronger, and progressed. I ask them to list what chances they took, what they learned, how they bounced back when something didn’t go as planned, and what they’d do differently next time. They share their answers with me, surprised by their growth. This is why reflection is my number one recommendation for perfectionists and one of the best ways to assess, ignore the Inner Antagonist and everyday demands, and celebrate wins, losses, and insights. I encourage you to make it at least a weekly practice. Adding gratitude to your reflection can move you into a positive mindset.
Reframe the roles
Being prepared to perfection is more likely to become perilous when our roles expand and grow. We may take on more responsibility in our company or at home and approach it with the same level of effort that has worked before. So frequently, more is added, and nothing is taken away. This calls us to operate more efficiently or take things off the list. This is a difficult part of the role transition we are experiencing. The paradox is that we can’t apply the same level of effort toward perfection that we always have, but we still believe we won’t be successful unless we are perfect. To disrupt ourselves, we must rethink perfection and dive into our expectations of the hats we wear. As we gain more accountability for people at work, we may need to force ourselves to delegate and establish one-on-one check-ins on progress and outcomes. At home, our strategy may be reflecting on our vision of what gets done and who does it.
I asked one client to list all of the to-dos in her home and request that her partner do the same. It was shocking for them to see the dramatic difference in the length of their lists and opened more conversations about what they could do, divide, or ditch. Tiffany Dufu’s book Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less is a call to working women to reconsider the standards to which we hold ourselves. While her manifesto is more focused on homes, the spirit of her message can be applied to our work life too. As we advance in our careers, we have to let go of some of the preparation that secured perfection for us in the past. We need to reframe our roles and the standards to which we deliver, balancing our own values and needs with what is most critically important in each role.
Plan for action, ask for help
Many times, we resist deciding because we don’t want to risk a bad outcome. If that resonates with you, consider creating a framework for your decision criteria that enables you to act. This could be as simple as determining, for example, that you can move forward if three of five assumptions are proven. Seek input and coaching from your manager so you can move forward with less than perfect information. When you receive a new request on top of a full plate, consider the time you can commit to it and ask if that will be sufficient for the level of risk involved in the work. If not, collaborate on how to reprioritize or offload other work. Engage others to help you make this shift.
I recommend that you talk to your boss about your deliverables. Work with them to identify the high-stakes work and where you can deliver more efficiently or delegate. I tell my clients and students: Identify the As, Bs, and Cs. Negotiate how many As you can realistically handle with the excellence required, along with the level of completion of the Bs and Cs. This kind of conversation can help you create shared expectations of the work needed. You are no longer in school striving for a 4.0. It’s time to focus the effort where it is most needed and match the remaining projects to the appropriate level of rigor. You may be thinking, everything is treated like an A in my workplace. If so, that calls for a different conversation. As when you matched your course load to difficult content or how hard a semester would be, it’s critical to set yourself up for success through courageous conversations that make for a sustainable work life. Delineating the A, B, and C projects is one way to do that. So often, our fear of messing up (FOMU) leads to fear of missing out (FOMO). When we hold back to avoid FOMU, we may trade off our shot at future opportunities. Later, we look back, wondering what opportunities could have been ours if we had let go of perfectionism and plunged into action that could have led to the next role. When we overprepare repeatedly, we then experience the FOMO on other ways we might be spending our time.
Women are stereotypically thought to be more empathic, yet when we strive for perfection, we are rarely empathetic to ourselves. Get realistic about how hard you are on yourself and give yourself more compassion. My wish for you is that you let go of overdoing the preparation and begin to practice showing up less than perfect. Take one small, courageous step at a time followed by another, bigger one. Choose progress over perfection. Be prepared enough to progress. When you recognize that you are more ready than you thought and step through that mirrored door, you will realize you’ve got this. I’m betting you will soon see that you knew so much more all along. It’s a journey, and you are no longer a solo traveler. Why wait?