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Who Really Performs Better: The Perfectionist or the High Achiever?

David B. Sarnoff, Esq.

With Natalie Loeb

Gordon Loeb

David Robert

Loeb Leadership

Our work needs to be perfect, right? Isn't the risk too great if it's not? As a legal professional, you are likely to answer a resounding "Yes!" to both of the above.

But, is perfection even possible? And, perhaps more importantly, is it worth trying to achieve?

Merriam-Webster defines perfectionism as "a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable." This means that the perfectionist will continue to perform tirelessly until they believe the work product is perfect. But—and herein lies the problem—that belief is entirely subjective. So, the perfectionist may never believe they've achieved perfection. Spurred on by self-doubt, they labor interminably on a task, impacting overall project workflow, frustrating colleagues, straining imminent deadlines, and ultimately disappointing clients. We've all heard the phrase "analysis paralysis," and it may actually be the result of a perfectionist culture.

Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.

- Salvador Dali

Now, what about high achievers? Don't they harbor the same tendencies as perfectionists? In some senses, yes. But there are key distinctions. "Although perfectionists and high achievers [both desire to] excel in their goals, there is a significant difference between the two," says Robin Farber, an Executive Coach and Psychotherapist. "Perfectionists are driven by a perfect outcome as a way to seek temporary emotional relief from a painful feeling." This suggests that perfectionists are motivated by the fear of failure or rejection.

"Perfectionists find it difficult to enjoy the small wins along life's journey," continues Farber, "which can take a toll on the individual, the team, and the organization."

High achievers, on the other hand, also aim to produce an exceptional deliverable but cope better with disappointment and are not afraid of it. They see mistakes and failures as necessary steps on the road to success. Thus, they tend to have a more positive mindset, be less anxious, and find ways to celebrate even minor accomplishments and milestones.

Now, you might say, "But clients demand perfection!" In truth, clients frequently tell us that they need their lawyers and team members to demonstrate agility, creativity, and openness to change in pursuit of an excellent result. A hyper-focus on perfectionism contradicts those competencies. Though perfectionists will claim—and believe—that they are focused on producing exceptional work product, their underlying fear of failure inevitably stifles the competencies our clients say they value, like collaboration and innovation.

Sandy Rubenstein, CEO of the digital marketing firm DX Agency, sums the problem up perfectly. "A perfectionist can be the downfall of a creative environment, limiting the free flow of ideas and possibilities." She adds, "Although perfectionists are typically great project managers, in today's fluid business environment, a perfectionist can sometimes have difficulty with the non-tangibles, the curve balls, and out-of-the-box thinking."

If the global pandemic we are living through has taught us anything, it is that we cannot control everything. We have had to quickly adapt and learn new ways of working and be willing to try new approaches to working with our colleagues and clients. Doing this requires the mindset of a high achiever, not a perfectionist. To continue to be successful through to the end of the pandemic and post pandemic, we will all be challenged to try new ways of working, communicating and living. Buckle your seat belts. We’ll be learning as were

Sometimes the best ideas are born from analyzing our mistakes. While certain mistakes can indeed be costly, if your firm consistently punishes even the slightest error, then a variety of valuable, constructive, and creative activities will be avoided for fear of embarrassment or rejection.

What if you work alongside a perfectionist? As noted by author and therapist John Amodeo, PhD., "People who are addicted to perfection are often isolated. They don't have many friends. They're afraid that people will see through them, so they don't let anyone get too close.'' Thus, you can enhance the effectiveness of your interactions with a perfectionist via a handful of proven methods, one of which is empathy. "The most important thing is to be empathetic," says David Robert, Chief Strategy Officer at Loeb Leadership. "Remember, perfectionists tend to fear rejection, so it's important to let the person know that you understand their perspective."

Perhaps more challenging is how, as a leader, you should provide feedback to perfectionists vs. high achievers. High achievers, fortunately, welcome it. They require just a bit of "TLC" feedback to improve (i.e., Timely, Limited to one behavior, and clearly describing the Consequences of the behavior). For example, "Yesterday, we missed a deadline to get a draft to the client for review. The client is not happy." This type of feedback, however, will land better with a high achiever who is ready to discuss what happened than with a perfectionist who may look to point blame elsewhere.

In fact, because perfectionists tend to respond defensively to criticism, leaders often choose not to give any feedback. This is a mistake, because not providing feedback contributes to the loneliness that perfectionists may feel. It becomes a bit of a vicious circle.

The good news is that, in our experience, most perfectionists are not unreasonable and will work with you to find some middle ground. "Once you demonstrate an understanding, then you can try to establish a shared vision," notes Robert. "If you can agree on a shared vision, you're in a better position to clarify where trade-offs can be made." Robert suggests focusing on the client experience as a way to frame that discussion. Allow the common desire for exceptional client service to guide the process for getting work done.

Creating an environment that rewards high achievers is the best way to ensure your team demonstrates the agility, creativity, and openness to change that clients value. High achievers "know that they are always learning and are striving to improve. Cultivating a culture that promotes high achievement and incorporates frequent feedback is often the way to the more 'perfect' outcomes, since high achievers are always striving," says Natalie Loeb, CEO and leadership coach for Loeb Leadership.

And don't worry. If you describe yourself as a perfectionist, you're in good company. Perfectionists who are self-aware tend to be more open to finding a middle ground as compared to those whose perfectionist tendencies reside in their blind spot. "One thing you can try immediately,” says Robert, "is to seek feedback from trusted colleagues. The more self-aware you are, the more likely you are to shift your mindset."

While aiming for high-caliber results is any attorney’s goal, it must be balanced with rational and reasonable expectations of oneself and others. Lawyers never want to fail their clients, but incorporating certain successful elements of the tech mindset, "fail fast and fail forward," can be helpful as we look to find a balance in our daily battle with perfectionism. Mistakes happen. Rebound quickly (fail fast) and learn from them (fail forward). Leaving space for imperfections creates opportunities to build resilience, coping skills, self-confidence, and self-esteem. All qualities of high achievers.

Please feel free to contact the authors directly with any question:

DAVID B. SARNOFF, ESQ., ACC, Director of Strategic Partnerships of Loeb Leadership and a Certified Executive Coach. | 866-987-4111.

NATALIE LOEB, Founder and CEO of Loeb Leadership and a Leadership Coach. | 866-987-4111.

GORDON LOEB, COO of Loeb Leadership and an Executive Coach. | 866-987-4111.

DAVID ROBERT, Chief Strategy Officer of Loeb Leadership | 866-987-4111.

David B. Sarnoff, Esq., ACC, is an ICF certified executive coach and leadership trainer with Loeb Leadership. As a former attorney, experienced executive search consultant, business owner, and former board of education president, David is uniquely qualified and experienced to understand the mindset, demands and challenges of corporate executives, attorneys, managers and individual contributors.

Natalie Loeb, M.S., is the founder and CEO of Loeb Leadership. With more than 25 years of experience as an executive coach to influential lawyers and business leaders, Natalie is recognized as an innovator in the area of leadership within the legal profession. For her core clients, medium to large AmLaw 100 firms, Natalie and her team create and execute flexible programming to enhance leadership capacity and build high-trust work cultures.

Gordon Loeb is President and COO of Loeb Leadership. His responsibilities include business development, marketing, financials, and client consultant relations. Gordon has an extensive entrepreneurial and corporate background including starting and growing two successful companies and running a division of Automatic Data Processing (ADP).

David Robert is Chief Talent Strategist at Loeb Leadership. He brings nearly 20 years of experience as a thought leader in the areas of Learning and Development, Change Management and Organizational Effectiveness. David has held both internal and external consulting positions at companies across several industries, and is the former CEO of Great Place to Work (Middle East).

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Practising Law Institute.

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