“The pursuit of excellence is gratifying and healthy. The pursuit of perfection is frustrating, neurotic, and a terrible waste of time.” – Edward Bliss.

Perfectionism is an imperfection masquerading as a virtue. It seems to grow on the same stalk as the pursuit of excellence, but in reality, it does not even belong in the same garden.

Perfectionism feeds on fears, worry, compulsion, and stress. And it breeds anxiety and depression. That said, many of today’s leaders and high-potential employees fall into the category of the perfectionist.

As I have pointed out in my books on intelligent leadership, with perfectionists, leadership coaching should focus on maturity. You need to coach the derailing perfectionist into a mature perfectionist.

Thus, you can help turn a dogmatic and inflexible person, who may be cruel and sadistic on the side, into an ethical, highly-principled, reliable, objective, and tolerant leader, willing to settle for achieving 80-95 percent of his/her original goals.

Coaching a derailing perfectionist is no walk in the park. It can, however, be highly rewarding for all parties involved.

How do you go about coaching a perfectionist?

  • Recognize perfectionism.
  • Check your own perfectionist tendencies.
  • Identify and challenge perfectionist thoughts with empathy, support, affirmation, and humor.
  • Have your trainee face his/her fears and conquer them.
  • Help him/her grow comfortable with imperfection.
  • Be a good role model.

Recognizing Perfectionism

A perfectionist sees their mistakes as proof of incompetence rather than learning opportunities. They may also tinker too much with details, thus exhibiting poor productivity. Other telltale signs of perfectionism are:

  • Reluctance to take risks.
  • Reluctance to ask for help.
  • An unforgiving attitude toward imperfection in others.

Keeping Your Perfectionist Tendencies in Check

If you have a history of perfectionism, be extra careful not to endorse the perfectionist behavior of the leader you coach unknowingly. Make sure that your trainee does not perceive your feedback as criticism.

Give your coachee ample space and the process plenty of time to produce results.

Identifying and Challenging Perfectionist Thoughts

Teach your trainee to identify such thoughts and suppress them, the way you would do it. You need to be extra careful not to come across as critical. Emotional intelligence is a competency on which you can fall back in this regard. If your coachee is capable of reflection and self-analysis, your job will be much easier.

The technique of artful questioning also allows you to identify and expose perfectionist tendencies without sounding critical. Through this technique of back-and-forth questions and answers, you can guide your interlocutor to uncover seemingly by themselves what you intend to showcase.

Focus your leadership coaching on the empathetic and thoughtful use of humor.

Facing Fears and Conquering Them

Ask your trainee to make a deliberate mistake and move on without dealing with it. You can make this exercise about something as trivial as sending out an email with typos in it.

my fears

Facing your fears is your first step toward defanging them. 

A mature perfectionist is comfortable with some degree of imperfection.

Being a Good Role Model

Make sure that you practice what you preach. Do not come across as a know-it-all. Admit that there are things you do not know and encourage your coachee to explore the unknown with you.


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