A Coaching Power Tool Created by Katia Melazzi
(Executive & Leadership Coach, SINGAPORE)
Chinese Mandarin: 千里之行，始於足下
Pinyin: Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zú xià
literally: “A journey of a thousand Chinese miles
starts beneath one’s feet” is a common saying
that originated from a famous Chinese proverb
Who doesn’t enjoy delivering work with no mistakes?
What is wrong with striving for perfection? Who doesn’t aim for perfection?
When I started to think about this outcome, I was clear in my mind that I wanted to design a Power Tool to shift away from the perspective of Perfection.
Indeed, even if Perfection has some positive connotations, in my coaching experience so far, I have also found that it is one of the biggest obstacles preventing individuals to achieve their highest potential.
In many of my conversations with clients, I have realised there is a common pattern around the idea of perfection as their ultimate ambition, which at some point becomes a barrier that gets in the way of achieving the goals they set for themselves.
Unfortunately, I have also discovered that this pattern is much more common among women than men – even if it is not exclusive to my female clients. And this has given me another good reason to spend time on and dig into it as I am an enthusiastic advocate for women’s empowerment.
Perfect is the enemy of good – Voltaire
Perfection, it could be argued, doesn’t even exist. Aiming at perfection it like chasing a ghost because nothing is ever beyond criticism.
However, the word “perfection” is a great sounding word to many of us, I included as I have been a perfectionist for a good part of my life. Even though I know that no one can be perfect, to me it had always meant excellence; not settling for the ordinary but targeting the extraordinary.
The truth is that it is good to give the best effort, to go the extra mile, and to take pride in your performance. But when you feel as though you keep falling short, never seem to get things right, never have enough time to do your best the only result you get is an unpleasant feeling of being wrong.
The issue is not in having high standards or in working hard to deliver your best. The strive for perfection becomes a problem when it has an emotional impact on you or when it keeps you from succeeding. These emotional consequences include the fear of making mistakes, the stress from the pressure to perform, the self-doubt on your value as your self-confidence becomes heavily dependent on how much and what you accomplish. Eventually, you may end up focusing only on how other people react to you and to your achievement.
Perfectionism has a particular allure on women, who, in my observation, hold themselves to an even higher standard of performance than men usually do. Therefore, they hold back their ideas, their contributions, their leadership and their talents. Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they are perfect, and their work is beyond criticism.
But why are women so much affected by this aspiration to be perfect?
Why do they believe that if they are less than perfect, they are not worthy?
The quest for perfection is an endless journey many women have been on since a very young age. Different research indicates there are mainly two reasons:
- Gender expectations from childhood that are homogenous across the globe –
though with different nuances and levels
- Ongoing reinforcement of those expectations in the workplace and more
generally in our society
Girls start quite early to seek approval and doing their best to get everything right. They are precise, diligent and reliable and they are rewarded for exactly those qualities both in the family and in school. As a result, they feel loved, accepted, safe and secure but they also become more risk adverse to avoid making mistakes.
Later in life, the same gender expectations are strengthened, especially in male organizations cultures, due to the fact that female mistakes are often viewed more critically than those of men.
Therefore, the strive for perfection plays a positive role when it serves women in moving up the ladder while focusing on their continuous improvement and delivering their personal and professional targets. But it develops into a negative asset when they become more careful before making statements that they haven’t necessarily thought through to avoid the feeling of shame if they don’t appear perfect or they don’t speak up and contribute in same way as their male counterparts that is instead what is expected when you reach a high level in the organisation.
Sometimes the quest for perfection (“high standards” or “commitment to excellence”) becomes an excuse to avoid moving forward. Perfectionists often decide in advance that their results are never going to be good enough, so they don’t even bother to finish their work or deliver their product/service and keep perfecting it time over time. Not only perfectionism stops people from completing their work, but it often stops them from taking action and beginning something.
Action is one of the main reasons why people look for and decide to work with a coach. They feel stuck and unsatisfied of their current situation; they are looking forward to better results in their life, they want to find a way to move forward and to achieve a deep sustainable change.
The action is a prerequisite to improving every aspect of your life, an opportunity for you to learn, develop, build your self-esteem and grow as a person. However, even though taking action is so critical to the feeling of achievement, it can be challenging and not always that easy.
To move into action, you need to understand the underlying beliefs holding you back. For perfectionists, those underlying beliefs are related to the fear of failing, the perception of not being good enough and the shame of not delivering in line with family, social or cultural expectations. Once you unlock that belief of Perfection that blocks you, you become closer to change.
If instead of taking action, you are trying to get it perfect it greatly slows you down in your ability to move forward. Just do it. Because development and learning are in the doing. Change can occur only when you take action.
The most difficult part of taking action is the first step because that first step will move you into your discomfort zone. No matter how small a baby step you take towards your outcome, the thing which is really important is that step, because that step will be your action towards your outcome.
A baby step is always better than doing nothing and it is our first move in getting our goals into motion. Although the right action is what we all would like to do, any action is better than no action.
Getting rid of perfection to embrace action has several benefits in getting unstuck and building sustainable change. I would like to share 3 that – among others – play a critical role.
1. Turning new information into reality
If you read any book and get information from it, you may think that you understand things, but your life won’t change until you truly experience it, or you don’t use that new knowledge in real life by taking action. Even if you are reading the book, again and again, to thoroughly understand the information, only your action – along with information and knowledge – can change your life.
The truth is that knowledge can help you to avoid pitfalls and improve quicker. But experiencing something is a different thing.
For example, reading a book on becoming more confident won’t magically transform you into an individual without insecurities but with an application, the information can surely become useful and real.
2. Developing new positive habits
Change is an ongoing process. Doing something only once, for one day or for a few days will not bring any serious change in your life. Also, the actions that initially require a lot of effort eventually turn into habitual patterns of behaviour.
As anticipated earlier, the hardest part about taking action towards change is actually getting started. Then the more you repeat a new action, the more natural it becomes, but if you never start, it will never become a habit.
For example, if you want to stay fit then one day of exercising will not help you to stay fit, you need to take action on a regular base to get a change.
3. Raising self-satisfaction and self-esteem
Imagine your manager asks a question during a meeting and you know the answer.
But because you are shy and don’t want to feel embarrassed in front of your colleagues in case the answer is wrong you don’t say anything. Then that same answer is given by a smarter colleague (most likely a man) and immediately after that you regret thinking so much instead of taking action and this will make you feel sad and upset. Indeed, an action is not just important to get the results you want to achieve, but it will also enable you to raise your self-satisfaction and self-esteem and develop your motivation.
How this applies to me as a coach?
During the coaching session, I want to focus on being fully present to my client. When I started my peer coaching this was easier said than done. Indeed, I was keeping close to my desk the PCC markers because I was committed to learn and implement the structure. Over time, I have appreciated giving more space to “the art” rather than “the science” of coaching and, most importantly, I have discovered how much more rewarding is to stay in the flow with your client instead of paying too much attention to the structure of the process to deliver a “perfect session”. Allowing myself to be imperfect has empowered me to be with and serve the client at the best of my capabilities. What I have learnt over the past year is that when you become comfortable with taking action and putting imperfect things into the world, you create opportunities for yourselves to grown.
How this may apply to a client?
One client of mine – let’s call her Yu Yan – was made redundant from her company just before turning 50yo. She was an accomplished HR executive with a solid track record of results spanning more than two decades in different MNC companies.
The fact of being fired from her job was a true shame for her. In her mind, this was a strong message to her entire world that she was not perfect or, even worse, that she had been an impostor having spent most of her life pretending to be the perfect daughter, student, wife, mother, employee and colleague.
She found herself stuck with the stressful thought that things were either good or bad, right or wrong, just perfect or full-on. She didn’t want to lose her face and deal with the embarrassment caused by her inability to behave in line with her family and social expectations and to create new possibilities for herself.
The truth is that they strive for perfection that has supported her to rise through the ranks in the corporate world and get where she was not only was not serving her anymore but had become a disempowering and paralysing perspective.
Using a coaching approach has been very powerful when dealing with Yu Yan and it can be equally strong with people sharing a similar disempowering thought while stuck in an unproductive perspective.
Questions to support the client to create a shift from Perfection to Action and help her to move forward:
- Think about a goal that you have set for yourself in the past that you achieved.
What were the strengths that allowed you to achieve that goal?
- What areas of your life do you need to start making changes in?
- What’s the best way I can support you today to move into action?
- Think about how your current inaction contributes to the problem. How are you going to change/replace this in order to move forward?
- What would you do if you were courageous enough to do it right now?
- What could be the first step you take today to move forward?
- What do you look like when you are in action?
- What would it make sense to do now?
- What is the risk involved in this if you do not do it?
- What is stopping you from moving forward?
- Can you foresee any potential obstacles in your path?
- What are the possible actions you could take to overcome potential obstacles?
- Would you like me to be an accountability partner for your goal?
- Are you ready to take action NOW?
At the end of the day, moving away from perfection to accept imperfection allows people to progress. To move forward. And ultimately it gives them the opportunity to succeed again.
- Think about a situation in which you shifted from action to a mindset of perfection. What did produce the shift? What were your thoughts and feelings?
- As a coach, what are some powerful questions to support your client to move forward into action?
- What structures are you developing to support your coaching around action?
- As a coach, how can you help your client when you notice that she is slipping back to the old habit of striving for perfection?
- What role does acknowledgment plays in supporting action?
How Perfectionism Tricks You Into Downplaying Your Own Value by P. Economy – The Inc. Life
How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job Hardcover by S. Helgesen and M. Goldsmith
ICA Coach Skills Program
ICA Power Tools Program
Perfectly Wrong: Why Perfection Can Destroy Your Motivation by B. Hoffman – Psychology Today