Perfectionism a barrier to inclusive leadership

by Jul 20, 2021

When being right isn’t always best

Perfectionism a barrier to inclusive leadership threatens and sabotages your workplace culture.


One group of people who may find an inclusive leadership style more challenging are the perfectionists amongst us. Perfectionism tends to drive people to being pre-occupied with flawlessness by achieving unattainable ideals or unrealistic goals. However, the concepts underlying diversity and inclusion don’t always align with the basic tenets and behaviours associated with this characteristic.

Punishment and reward

Corporate cultures (the way we are and do things here) grow around the behaviours which organisations reward and “punish.”  Perfectionism, or the nearest thing to it, is a commonly accepted benchmark in most organisations. We are all encouraged to turn in top quality, error-free work, on time. We discourage disorganisation, errors, and tardiness.

Most organisations have “grading systems” (a reward system) in performance reviews, based on how right (perfect) we all get things. Very few organisations have space for people who aren’t sure what they are doing, except perhaps in a tech start-up. Most businesses have some inbuilt part of their culture that negatively impacts inclusivity because of a need for certainty.

3Plus offers professional unconscious bias training programmes. Find out more HERE.


Perfectionism a barrier to inclusive leadership

How we measure success

When businesses reward certain types of behaviour, we encourage everyone to view success in the same way. Others modify their behaviour accordingly to align with their aspirations. When all “successful” employees behave in the same way, we create a culture. When that behaviour is role modelled we embed those cultural norms.

But the emphasis on “being” right and doing things correctly, can have a positive and negative impact.

Upsides of perfectionism

  • You are focused and energetic. All the time. You get things done.
  • No detail is untouched. You are organised and have a schedule. Nothing is too insignificant for your attention and everything is checked and double-checked, to make sure it’s absolutely right.
  • You meet deadlines consistently. You know the phrase “if you want something done, give it to a busy person”. That’s you. You will literally work around the clock, rather than flag up a problem. Everyone comes back to you over and over again.
  • The work is flawless. There are no errors. It’s thorough and reflects well on everyone involved. Especially your boss.

We are now in the zone of optimum performance.

Downsides of perfectionism

  • You have a reluctance to delegate  – that can mean you don’t ask for help or advice. You don’t trust anyone except yourself to do a “proper job.” Whatever that is. There is no point in sharing all the information with people because they won’t get it, and besides they will take your idea or get credit for it.
  • Control is paramount  – this is frequently accompanied by poor communication, issuing instructions and mandates without considering how the message will be received. You probably have a tendency to make assumptions without asking questions and you never ask for feedback.
  • Procrastination  – when you start to get overwhelmed, you look for the right moment to finish something off. That moment quite often doesn’t come. There are always last things to check.
  • You become overloaded   – left to carry the burden on your own, you don’t want to signal you are not perfect, and can’t cope. You head for burnout and tell no one.


perfectionism a barrier to inclusive leadership

Ultimately, perfectionism threatens inclusive leadership and sabotages your workplace culture. It prevents your organization from achieving the very success it is supposed to build.

The flaws in perfectionism

Perfectionism is a barrier to inclusivity. Non-inclusive organisations which strive for perfection tend to be hierarchical, with a command and control leadership style. Everyone has clearly delineated roles. Unconscious bias is rife where affinity bias (people like us who get things done) is the norm. The drive for perfection means we rarely or even never challenge the status quo.

Deep diving into inclusivity is an open and transparent audit of the way an organisation runs, which identifies the basic tenets of the culture. This includes the ideas they value and how they are implemented at an operational level. It involves brave conversations and invites groups and individuals to contribute with vulnerability, to acknowledge personal and systemic limitations. This means taking a close look at mistakes and where perfectionism didn’t work.

In letting go of perfectionism to set realistic goals, empowering and trusting people as well as other inclusive workplace practices, we create a culture of creativity and innovation.

But resistance is inevitable.

Push back is good

It’s important never to ignore resistance. It frequently comes from the least expected quarters. Research shows that there are gender differences in the roots of perfectionism, with higher numbers of women falling into the category more readily. Resistance is simply another word for fear of change, which is perfectly normal. These initiatives are not always popular because they are perceived as a zero-sum activity. One group will lose at the expense of another’s win. In some cases, it can be obvious because cultural elements are easily identifiable and are articulated in a “this is the way we do things here”  way.

It is the elements that are deeply entrenched, perhaps linked to wider cultural norms which cause the greatest problem. We see this around gender frequently where everyday sexism isn’t tackled because it is culturally acceptable.  Unless these are teased out into a public arena and the unspoken is talked about openly, only then can organisations move forward. This is when perfectionism is a barrier to inclusive leadership if we don’t let it go. The process can be messy and is profoundly imperfect. But imperfection is completely necessary.


3Plus offers programmes on Inclusive Leadership. Find out more HERE.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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