Perfectionists in the career: Weekend Poll results

Thank you to all who participated in my August 20, 2020 Weekend Poll, in which I asked readers if you have tendencies toward perfectionism in your career. As a number of  you anticipated in comments you offered on social media, the results are indeed interesting – so let’s dive in.

Trying to exceed expectations

A whopping 64% of respondents confirmed having a tendency to over-deliver or exceed expectations. I can relate. It’s been a while, but I remember including a statement about a commitment to exceeding expectations in the cover letters I wrote when applying for my last few roles.

Thirty-four percent of respondents said you have a tendency to over-deliver or exceed expectations only occasionally, depending on the project or undertaking. Only 2% of all respondents said you don’t do so at all.

Not all decisions carry the same weight

… and yet almost half of all respondents, 45%, said you tend to treat all decisions with the same degree of importance.


How do you feel when it turns out you’ve made a mistake and fixed it? A modest 3% of respondents said you fix the mistake and forget about it. Forty-five percent of respondents acknowledged feeling disappointed in yourself in such situations, while 52% make a mental or physical “note to self” to learn from the mistake and do better the next time.

Are you willing to delegate?

Only 8% of respondents said you don’t hesitate to delegate work when you have the authority to do so. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said you’ll delegate, depending on the degree of confidence you have in the other person’s work. Almost one in five, 19%, said you’ll delegate if you have to – but then you have to spend time double checking the other person’s work.

Another 16% said you prefer to do the work yourself, even if it takes more time; you’ll know that the work is up to your standards.

Micromanaging and perfectionism

The majority of respondents, 74%, said no one has ever suggested you micromanage things. Nine percent reported hearing this from others, and another 17% said you think you micromanage.

When it comes to perfectionism, only 36% of respondents said no colleague – past or present – has ever suggested you’re a perfectionist. A full 64% of respondents said you have been on the receiving end of such an observation.

Yes, but what do you think?

Less than one in five respondents, 18%, said you don’t consider yourselves perfectionists. Thirty-five percent do consider yourselves perfectionists, while another 47% said you have perfectionist tendencies and try to rein them in.

The Ps and Qs of perfectionism

I believe that the drive for perfection, and some of the challenges therein, can in some instances be summed up with a series of Ps … and a single Q, as follows.

Quality – All good assistants strive to produce quality deliverables. That’s appropriate.

Performance – The quality of our work speaks to our performance and, as seen above, many assistants have a tendency to over-deliver or try to exceed expectations. If a constant commitment to exceeding expectations is part of your approach to the career, why is this? Some attribute this to what’s referred to as imposter syndrome, or to overstating (to ourselves) others’ expectations and potential adverse outcomes if we don’t over-deliver. I think that some of this may have to do with our own perceptions.

Perceptions – Why do so many assistants have a tendency to over-deliver? What approval is being sought?

There are many assistants, whatever the job title, who chose this career from an early stage. I know one in England who did just that, at the age of 15. Sharon Schulz will mark her 50th (yes, you read that correctly) anniversary in the career in 2021. Based in Leicester, Sharon began her career in the days when typewriters were tools of the trade. She progressed to the EA level, and now owns her own business as a freelance bilingual Personal Assistant (PA).

However, there are likely even more assistants who embarked on adult life without this particular career in mind. I wonder if some of these successful career assistants feel the weight of earlier expectations – their own, or others’ – of their career choices. Is there, perhaps, an ongoing need to prove one’s expertise, or to demonstrate that we’re as skilled and talented as those to whom we report? In other words, do assistants’ own perceptions of their place on the org chart and in society impact how we conduct ourselves?

Pressure – Speaking from experience, some of the pressure assistants experience is self-inflicted. 

Problematic – When we strive for perfection, we’re hindering our own progress.

Perspective –  Remember that 35% of respondents do identify as perfectionists, while another 47% said you have perfectionist tendencies and try to rein this in. This reining in may reflect self-awareness. It may also demonstrate reflection and action taking upon receiving feedback; remember that 64% of respondents have been on the receiving end of suggestions or comments that they’re perfectionists. 

When I published this poll, I heard from more than a few readers on social media channels. John Shaw observed that assistants always strive for perfection. He gave me permission to share a nugget from his grandmother Frankie Weems, who reminded John recently that, “… it’s okay to be perfectly imperfect”.

Productivity – Striving for perfection can adversely impact productivity, which can hinder performance. In my 2015 Real Careers interview with Christabell Pinchin, she commented, “Perfection is the enemy of  ‘good enough’. My biggest time-management issue was that I felt everything needed to be perfect the first go ’round. I have learned to remind myself often that sometimes ‘good enough’ is indeed good enough. Break a project into pieces and check in often with those around you as you finish each ‘piece’. It’s easier and much more efficient to correct a path you are on mid-way through rather than starting over from scratch.”

It may help to think about productivity in terms of what you accomplish, rather than whether everything is perfect. Think, too, about the impacts you have – upon your principal (boss), team/unit, your other stakeholders, and the organisation as a whole.

Paralysis – If you find yourself routinely rethinking, revising and redoing work, that can be a form of paralysis in that it impedes your productivity and effectiveness. Think about all the decisions you need to make in a single day. Treating each decision with the same degree of importance can slow you down and detract from the time and energy you have for other matters.

Progress – We all want to progress in our careers, whether we choose to remain where we are or whether we envision making a move internally or externally. We can learn by observing how others function. Take time to think about some of the people you see at higher levels on the organisational chart, in your organisation or elsewhere. Consider behaviours they exhibit, and how such behaviours can help people progress in their careers.

  • Time and self management: Do you see a high percentage of perfectionists among this bunch? Or do you see people who, generally speaking, have learned to accept that sometimes good enough is, indeed, good enough? There will be instances in which such individuals over-deliver and strive to exceed expectations. It’s likely, though, that such instances reflect strategic insights and choices, rather than a norm.
  • Context: Again, “good enough” need not imply subpar or even average quality. Nor does it imply an absence of proofreading, or inattention to accuracy. To me, good enough means you know when to stop polishing, rethinking or reworking something.
  • Delegating: Are the majority of such people comfortable with delegating rather than micromanaging? How does comfort with delegating boost one’s productivity, and signal leadership potential?
  • Decision making: Try to envision the range of decisions your CFO, CEO or some other senior executive has to make in a given day. Would this person attach the same weight to all decisions? I’d be surprised if this was a common approach. It’s more likely that such individuals prioritise and give greater or lesser weight to each decision depending on the nature of the decision and its potential impacts/ramifications.
  • Micromanaging: You know how you feel when someone micromanages your work. It’s not pleasant, nor does it convey a sense of confidence in your abilities. Recognise that, if you have this tendency, not only are you not making the best use of your time; you’re sending signals that others may not appreciate. Micromanaging can impact your professional reputation and relationships.
Choose resilience over perfection

I believe that, for those interested in performance and career satisfaction, we can more effectively invest our energies by focusing on resilience rather than perfection. If we spend our days striving for perfection, and particularly if we’re unduly hard on ourselves over our mistakes, we may be chipping away at personal resilience that can actually support high performance.

Instead, aim for resilience and high performance standards. This is a combination that’s more obtainable and better for you, both personally and from a career persepctive. Read on for a look at all the data.

The data

1. Do you have a tendency to over-deliver? In other words, do you tend to try to exceed expectations?

  • Yes: 64% of respondents 
  • No: 2% of respondents
  • Only occasionally; it depends on the project or undertaking: 34% of respondents

2. When it comes to making decisions over the course of a work day, do you tend to treat all decisions with the same degree of importance? 

  • Yes: 45% of respondents 
  • No: 55% of respondents 

3. How do you typically respond when it turns out you’ve made a mistake?

  • I fix it and feel upset/disappointed in myself:  45% of respondents 
  • I fix it and make a mental or physical “note to self” to learn from it and do better next time:  52% of respondents 
  • I fix it and forget about it:  3% of respondents 

4. Think about times when you’ve set a goal, and want to incorporate habits to support the goal. Which of the following best describes your approach when you want to establish a new habit?

  • I won’t start a new habit unless I know I’ll keep it up, no matter what:  13% of respondents 
  • I wait and work my way up to the point where I feel confident I can succeed in maintaining a new habit:  49% of respondents 
  • I go all in:  23% of respondents 
  • None of the above:  15% of respondents 

5. Which of the following best describes the way you feel about delegating work, when you have the authority to do so?

  • I don’t hesitate:  8% of respondents 
  • I’ll delegate depending on the degree of confidence I have in the other person’s work:  57% of respondents 
  • I delegate if I have to, but then I have to spend time double checking the other person’s work:  19% of respondents 
  • I prefer to do the work myself, even if it takes more time; I’ll know the work is up to my standards:  16% of respondents 

6. Has anyone ever suggested that you micromanage things?

  • No:  74% of respondents 
  • Yes; I think I micromanage:  17% of respondents 
  • Yes; I’ve heard this from one or more colleagues 9% of respondents 

7. Has a colleague – past or present – ever suggested/commented that you’re a perfectionist?

  • Yes:  64% of respondents 
  • No:  36% of respondents 

8. Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?

  • Yes:  35% of respondents 
  • No:  18% of respondents 
  • I have perfectionist tendencies, and try to rein this in:  47% of respondents 

9. If you consider yourself a perfectionist, which of the following best describes your experience?

  • I’m generally on top of my work and keep reasonable hours:  43% of respondents 
  • I’m generally on top of my work and keep long hours:  24% of respondents 
  • I sometimes struggle with staying on top of workload, and attribute this at least in part to being a perfectionist:  21% of respondents 
  • I sometimes struggle with staying on top of workload, and attribute this to the volume/nature of work rather than to being a perfectionist: 12% of respondents
  • I typically struggle with workload:  0% of respondents 

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