As a senior director at a fintech company, Adrianna’s identity was deeply intertwined with the quality of her work. Although her focus on excellence had helped build a multi-million dollar business unit, she moved through her day as if it were her duty to execute on every task, even if it was below her responsibility level. Adrianna came to me for coaching because she felt frustrated and resentful. She was sick of working fifty hour weeks, and due to a mandate from the CEO, she needed to focus on strategy first and foremost. When I asked about her approach to delegation, Adrianna—who’s a self-professed perfectionist—laughed nervously and said, “I’m a control freak. I have trouble letting go. I want to make sure the work gets done right.”
If Adrianna’s story sounds familiar, you’re far from alone. Studies show perfectionism—or the behavior of striving for unrealistically high standards—is on the rise. While a drive to exceed expectations is admirable, perfectionism can lead to excess self-criticism, poorer quality of workplace performance, and more serious consequences like burnout and depression.
Like Adrianna, perfectionists with Type A personalities tend to be so exacting, they have trouble delegating. For example, they may hoard assignments, spend time tweaking unimportant details, or micromanage, all of which leads to exhaustion and overworking for the individual and low morale for the team. Poor delegation can also hinder business results. In 2014, a Gallup research team found that companies led by strong delegators achieved higher overall growth compared to companies whose leaders delegated less.
It’s clear that delegation is an essential leadership skill, especially if you want to drive better results and achieve greater work-life balance. It’s entirely possible to aspire to excellence without striving for unrealistic standards. If you’re a perfectionist, here’s how to get more comfortable letting go, without sacrificing quality.
CONSIDER THE COST
You may think being the office superhero is helpful, but pause to reflect on the negative impact to yourself and others. Your overfunctioning may be creating a dynamic where others underfunction. When you assume responsibility for doing everything and “fixing” situations, others don’t get the opportunity to step up. Delegation is not a punishment, nor about you “dumping work on people.” Rather, it is a chance for your team and colleagues to learn, grow, and acquire new skills and competencies.
Likewise, assess perfectionism’s price on your own well-being. Is it worth what it costs you in terms of lost time, productivity, and new opportunities? A turning point for many of my clients is the realization that perfectionism detracts from your leadership potential. While you may think trying to do more positions you as a rockstar, a lack of delegation actually signals to senior management that you’re not ready for more responsibility. Highlighting what’s at stake can change your behavior because humans tend to be motivated by loss.
Many perfectionists fall into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking. They attempt to delegate by handing off work in one fell swoop. This inevitably fails because you have to build a comfort and capacity for delegation within yourself and on your team in stages.
Start by choosing a low-stakes task you can delegate first. Try tracking your time for one week to identify candidates for delegation. These include tasks that:
- Are administrative, tedious and take a lot of your time
- Require a straightforward, repeatable process that can be easily taught
- Necessitate a specialized skill set you don’t have
The goal is to focus on upskilling and transitioning tasks in parts. This not only builds your confidence that your team member can do the job, but also builds the person’s sense of mastery and competency with the task. Research shows that the perception of progress creates an upward spiral that begets more ownership, creativity, and motivation.
As the delegator, your job is to define the “what,” or the final deliverable, and “why,” or the context and purpose. Be clear about your expectations and criteria for success, but delegate authority over how the task is accomplished. This requires you to let go of rigid, perfectionist thinking and the assumption that there is “right” one way to achieve and result.
Similarly, drop the idea that you must have a task exquisitely mapped out before you delegate it. Instead, approach delegation as a thought partnership. Invite your team member into the process. For example, ask them to propose assignments they’d like to work on, have them share ideas as to what they can take off your plate. Many of my clients are very surprised by what their team members come up with, either because they didn’t realize someone would want to do that task or because their team member proposes something they didn’t think of.
Adrianna was reluctant to follow these steps at first. But soon she realized that not only did her team enthusiastically step up, but they also finished the work faster and to high quality. Senior management said they were impressed by Adrianna’s leadership skills, and tapped her for a major strategic initiative. Most reassuring of all, Adrianna no longer felt a crushing sense of responsibility and exhaustion. She was able to enjoy her work without so much stress.
Melody Wilding is an executive coach, licensed social worker, and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.