A prominently displayed poster inside Facebook’s headquarters reminds employees that “Done is better than perfect.” The idea that perfection is the enemy of the good is a fabulous concept that I wish more women would take to heart.
Perfectionism is the nemesis of personal fulfillment and career advancement. Studies suggest it’s far more common in women than in men and that our addiction to perfection is holding us back.
Dr. Alicia Domar, a Boston-based psychologist, details the relationship between women and perfectionism in her book Be Happy Without Being Perfect. She describes an a-ha moment when a highly successful woman with a great career, solid marriage, excellent health and four well-adjusted children sat down in her office. It took some time for Dr. Domar to figure out why this woman needed to see a psychologist in the first place. After all, she clearly had a great life. It turned out that the woman was experiencing huge amounts of stress on account of her messy house. She told Dr. Domar that every time she opened a drawer and saw clutter, she felt like a “miserable failure.”
Imagine: a great career, solid family life, and shining health, all undone by a messy drawer.
For all our team-enhancing, consensusbuilding and generally supportive tendencies, we women are quick to focus on the negative when it comes to ourselves. In one study, researchers from Cornell and Washington State University asked men and women students to rate their own abilities in science before performing a test. While the test results were even across the board, the women were much more likely to rate their abilities negatively. This negative self-perception resulted in a tendency to shy away from opportunity. When the same people were later invited to compete for a science prize, only 49 per cent of women signed up for the competition compared to 71 per cent of the men.
This phenomenon has consequences for career advancement. Women will only apply for a promotion if they are sure they meet 100 per cent of the criteria. Men will apply if they meet 50 per cent of the criteria. In fact, experts suggest that one of the reasons men continue to occupy the top rungs of corporate leadership is that they have the confidence to take on bigger challenges quicker (i.e. with half the qualifications they need).
Ah, confidence. What a loaded and misunderstood word. When I survey students in my Courageous Communications course about what they most hope to gain from the program, increased confidence is always at the top of the heap, particularly for women participants. But I have found that confidencebuilding exercises are of limited value when they are built on a shaky belief system.
And that belief system sounds something like this: I have to be perfect in order to be totally confident. According to this belief system, confidence is something you earn through perfection. And that, ladies, is what we call a limiting belief.
When it comes to career advancement, confidence is every bit as important as competence. You may well be the most competent person up for the job, but if you lack confidence, you’re unlikely to be promoted. Combine this reality with an underlying belief that you have to be perfect in order to be worthy of feeling totally confident and you have a careerkilling cocktail.
There are all sorts of reasons why women are addicted to perfection. The brainwashing starts young – I will never get over the shock I felt when someone first told me that the Barbies I so loved as a child had body proportions that were actually physiologically impossible.
The idea that confidence is a bi-product of near perfection is equally untrue. Confidence is about accepting yourself as you are, accurately perceiving your strengths and weaknesses and going for what you want. There is no certificate or achievement on this earth that will grant you confidence. It has to come from within and it may as well start now.
So if you’re yearning for the confidence you need to take that next step in your career, forget about chanting affirmations and getting yet another certification. Start by exorcising that inner Barbie.