Story | Women in Business

Career Advice for Women in Business: How To Avoid the Perfection Trap

Apr. 7 2023

Author and women’s business coach, Sally Helgesen, says, “I’ve never once heard people say, ‘I work for a perfectionist boss, and I love it!’” Research shows businesses often encourage and reward perfectionism in women early in their careers. This same characteristic is often frowned upon in women business leaders. 

Perfectionism in Business

One of the most interesting insights for women in business is research showing women are rewarded and promoted in organizations from early to mid-career. According to Helgesen, this leads women to “continually get the message early and in the mid-point of their career: being precise and correct is going to get you where you want.” However, these traits of a businesswoman become undesirable and problematic the higher a woman climbs the corporate ladder.

Helgesen explores several reasons why female business leaders are negatively impacted by perfectionism. The first of these is that leaders need to be able to delegate. Perfectionism in women is often characterized by an attitude that no one else can perform the task as well. This makes it hard to delegate, leads to over-commitment, and prevents others from getting the opportunities, support, and training they need. When a perfectionist can delegate, it is done with the implication that the job needs to be done perfectly.

A mindset of perfectionism in business can spill over into personal life. Not only does it make work more stressful and difficult, but that stress doubles with the addition of daily life perfectionistic pressures. This stress has a ripple effect on other people too.

Have a Microfocus

Often perfectionists don’t realize this tendency sends a message about their big-picture thinking abilities. It says they are creating a microfocus in business. On the other hand, a successful businesswoman’s qualities include seeing the big picture.

This microfocus thinking is typically an unintended consequence of perfectionism. Helgesen says, “as a perfectionist, you identify yourself as having a micro focus. At senior levels, organizations are not looking for people who have a microfocus or are focused on being precise and correct. They’re looking for people who they can identify more as big-picture thinkers. And women have fantastic big-picture thinking capabilities.”

Three Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism

How do you avoid falling into the common trap of women and perfectionism? Helgesen offers three helpful career strategies for women to overcome perfectionistic tendencies.

  • Set a Time Limit

Business proposals, emails, presentations, reports, you name it, can all be tweaked and fine-tuned. That’s why Helgesen suggests setting a reasonable time limit. Give yourself an appropriate amount of time to complete and edit the task, and then when time is up, move on to the next project or task. Accept that done is better than perfect.

  • Learn to Delegate

Delegating tasks can be highly uncomfortable for perfectionists. Several women business leaders learned how to do this. Not only does delegation more evenly distribute the workload, but it also helps others learn to do the work.

  • Gauge the Level of Accuracy Needed

When working on a project for yourself or others, ask, “To what degree does this need to be done perfectly? Is it 90%? Is it 85? Is it 75? Don’t put 100% in there because given how we work today, if we put 100% into something, something else will get underserved.”

Other Helpful Business Strategies for Women

Another important thing for women to remember as they seek to embody the positive qualities of a businesswoman is to develop confidence. It can sometimes come in the form of a “fake it til you make it” attitude. Even if that is the case, pretending you feel an absolute right to inhabit a space where you feel awkward about it is very important. Acting as if you feel a certain way can ultimately lead to true feelings of confidence and belonging.

How To Succeed in Business

Advice on how to succeed in business for women undoubtedly looks different than for men. Women and men don’t think the same, and they process information differently. 

For the most part, when men are presented with information that requires them to adjust or change, they first assume the messenger is confused or misguided. They may even get defensive or think the person offering the critique doesn’t understand. Upon further reflection, they often dismiss the information. The result can be a negative view of the person who approached them about changing.

When women are presented with similar information, they take it to heart, might feel bad about it, and take it seriously. As they process it, the information takes hold and makes sense. In the end, they are more amenable and willing to make changes. This inward approach is both a detriment and a strength for women. Sometimes it holds women back as they blame themselves or get caught in a cycle of rumination. However, it can be a great benefit if they can take in the information, proactively incorporate the changes, and continue moving forward.

Insights for Women in Business

It often takes time and effort to hone effective business leader qualities. The more women are aware of the habits that commonly hinder them in the workplace, the better they can equip themselves with the tools to be successful. Learning to abandon or minimize perfectionism in business and at home, think with a big-picture perspective, be confident, make changes, and keep moving forward will serve women business leaders well.

More Tips for Women in Business

To learn more ways to strengthen your career or build your business, visit the Utah Women & Leadership Project, the Women’s Business Center of Utah, and the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Each organization has information, programs, and resources to help you build your career and/or business.

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