IBM’s former president says ‘perfectionism’ is one of the worst traits a leader can have in the workplace, calling it “the enemy of progress”.
Ginni Rometty, ex-president and CEO of the tech behemoth, was speaking at the annual World Business Forum recently when she made the comments about what is often considered a positive – and even necessary – characteristic for leaders to show in the workplace.
Rometty, who worked for IBM for 39 years and was chief exec from 2012 to 2020, explained how she’d made her mind up after being seen as a perfectionist for many years.
“My nickname in my early career was Red Pen,” she told the forum, explaining how “you’d send anything to me” and it would be returned “completely red.”
“I used to think that was a great skill... to find every mistake and improve it,” she said. That was until one day when a colleague told her that her obsession with perfection was having a bad impact on the workforce.
Rometty said: “One person was like: ‘You know, people just don’t even want to try hard, because you’re going to change it and fix it. It’s never going to be good enough‴.
“That’s pretty disabling for people… I was disempowering them. Of course, it was never my intent, but I learned to stop it.”
She concluded: “Perfectionism is the enemy of progress.
“And it’s what polarises people, ideologically. And this is why we make no progress on many things.”
The pitfalls of perfectionism
The pursuit of perfection is often celebrated, but the consequences of veering into perfectionism can be detrimental for both managers and their teams.
Patty McCord, the former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, once said: "Perfectionism is a real leadership killer. It can create a culture of constant stress and fear, making employees hesitant to take risks or share their innovative ideas."
In practical terms, the downsides of perfectionism are palpable. Employees, paralysed by the fear of making mistakes, may shy away from taking risks essential for growth. McCord emphasised: "A workplace that promotes perfectionism doesn't allow for the necessary trial and error that leads to breakthroughs and progress."
Despite these concerns, some argue that perfectionism can be a catalyst for excellence. As Steve Jobs once remarked: "I've always believed that the only way to do something great is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle."
Proponents of perfectionism contend that setting high standards can inspire teams to deliver exceptional results.
The challenge, therefore, lies in striking a balance. Embracing a leadership style that encourages high standards while fostering a supportive and collaborative work environment is the key to long-term success. In the ever-evolving landscape of the workplace, adaptability and resilience should take precedence over an unattainable quest for flawlessness.