August 1, 2018
Are You a Perfectionist? How Is That Working for You?
By Liza Vasquez
Certified Master Business and Life Coach
In our monthly articles, we usually place our emphasis on the best ways to obtain new and better clients despite economic up’s and down’s and despite the political uncertainties. Various versions of the following quote go back to ancient Rome and have been attributed to famous writers, philosophers, humorists and presidents: “I have known a great many troubles in my lifetime, but most of them never actually happened.” No matter what is going on right now, the world will continue and in your case the world will always need lawyers – in good times and bad times. That is why we pay so much attention to growing your list of clients.
Despite this emphasis, we are actually full-service Life Coaches almost exclusively devoted to lawyers and law firms. This means that practice development is only one aspect of the work we do with our clients. This month we would like to turn our attention to a personality characteristic that many lawyers have, which stands in their way of being more effective at work and which often prevents them from enjoying their families: Perfectionism.
There is no doubt that excellent legal work is required of you. But is being a perfectionist helpful or unhealthy for you?
We like to define terms. Therefore, Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high-performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and by being overly concerned with the evaluations of others. Perfectionism is not just about setting very high goals. It involves a tendency to feel that other people demand perfection from you. To be sure, psychologists generally agree that there are both positive and negative aspects to Perfectionism.
We have highlighted two of the words above, flawlessness and excessively (high performance standards). Flawless means perfect, without any imperfections, without blemishes, mistakes or shortcomings. Let’s think about this concept for a moment. Can you name anything in life that is truly flawless? Perhaps a diamond or a master work of Art can be flawless, but in your world, is it possible to have a flawless plan or a flawless contract? Good lawyers do the best they can, but flawless is virtually impossible to achieve.
Fortunately, you have deadlines. Were it not for deadlines, you would work on contracts and other documents endlessly, continuously reviewing them, making ever more minor and ever more subtle changes. There is an odd technical word in English “Asymptotic.” For our purposes here, this means “always halfway closer to the goal.”
With that definition, you see that no matter how close you get, you will never cross the finish line. You will get closer and closer to a perfect document, but you will never achieve it.
Young lawyers are desperate to make a good impression on the partners and senior lawyers of the law firm. They believe that their entire professional career is hanging in the balance and they impose excessively high-performance standards on themselves and they are overly concerned with the evaluations of their performance by the senior lawyers and partners of the firm.
If you are a partner or senior lawyer, you may think that perfection is a fine thing for the junior lawyers to be strive for. But we have another idea. In our coaching work, we spend a lot of time breaking old paradigms so that our clients can make progress by replacing them with more complete information. Paradigms are beliefs that something needs to be or should be a certain way,
Even top students in law school must begin their professional life as a legal intern or as a junior lawyer. This is a period of learning for them. They are not expected to perform like a partner with fifteen years’ experience. Nonetheless, they take criticism of the work very personally.
The pressures of recently completing their university and law school education and the new pressures of entering adult life and a professional career with all its new and heavy responsibility, leave these young lawyers at risk for severe depressive symptoms. In fact, nearly 30% of undergraduates and recent graduates suffer from depressive symptoms, which is three times higher than the general population. Researchers are studying the factors that contribute to depressive symptoms in order to help curb the ever-increasing depression epidemic. A recently published study focused on one such factor, perfectionism, and its depressing consequences. It shows that perfectionism has skyrocketed among undergraduates and recent graduates over the past three decades.
Through competitive and comparative performance reviews which determine salary increases and promotions, law firms emphasize the need for perfection. This only exacerbates what began back in the university in examinations or sporting trials, where students are measured, evaluated and compared against each other.
The paradigm of expecting and demanding perfection from the young lawyers is counter-productive to your long-term goal of being a solid experienced team of lawyers.
Inasmuch as you are trying to recruit the best talent you can, it makes sense for the partners and senior associates of a law firm take this into consideration. After all, it was hard enough to convince these bright young millennial lawyers that joining your firm was their best professional option. You don’t want to lose the brightest and the best young talent through burn-out. You don’t want them to get discouraged and not only leave the law firm but in the extreme, they might leave the practice of law.
Is there a solution? Yes, there is. Every partner and senior lawyer began life as a junior lawyer, wet-behind-the-ears, once upon a time. These young lawyers and interns should not be seen as the lowest form of life in a law firm where all the crap work ends up. These young lawyers are in truth the life blood of the law firm. Not all of them will become partners, to be sure. But how would you treat them if you knew that one day they will become your partners, or if they leave and in the future become in-house lawyers in potential clients or leave to run a family business?
Do the young lawyers in your firm know they are the life-blood of the firm? Make sure they know this. And, we do not suggest that you take off the pressure for their doing excellent work. What we do suggest is that the young lawyers understand that they are in a learning process; that mistakes, are to be expected and are part of the leaning process.
When reviewing their work, you will undoubtedly find mistakes and you will point them out. It is critical that the young lawyers are never made to feel that the criticism is personal. This is a teaching moment. It is part of their education, part of their learning. It can be helpful to the process if you say something like, “This is better than I could have done when I was in your place.” Of course, when beginning your compliment to begin your review, you must never use the word “but” (or however) because it negates any complement that came before.
“This is excellent work but there are some corrections……” You see how “but” is destructive to the process of building up this young lawyer’s confidence. A better approach would be, ‘I’m curious how you reached this conclusion’ or ‘How would you do this in the future?’ Your job is to supervise and educate, not to sit in judgment.
Now let’s turn our attention to partners who are Perfectionists themselves. Perfectionism can be a very demoralizing feeling even at the partner level. Partners who are like that are inclined to believe that there is no such thing as “good enough.” This attitude hurts them and the lawyers who work for them.
No matter what work the lawyers under them submit for review, it is never good enough. They believe that only they can produce perfect documents. The result is that they are constantly taking back work from the senior lawyers and completing it for them. Partners take the work back usually with harsh criticism for the quality of the documents given him/her. This is a bad policy because it demoralizes the lawyers under them and it doesn’t lead to a learning process. Partners are in the Mentoring Business, whether you like it or not.
The more experienced the senior lawyers become, the more valuable they are as an asset to the firm. It has taken years to get them to this level of performance. When they submitted documents to a partner, documents into which they put in lots of time and energy, they believed it was damn good work. And yet, those senior lawyers are most likely suffering from Perfectionism themselves. Therefore, this behavior by the Partner is a kick in the gut and feeds into their existing belief that their work is never good enough. Partners need these lawyers to support them. Retirement or even just personal time off, isn’t an option if the perfectionist Partner is obsessed with over-seeing every detail. This is a formula for illness, both physical and mental.
The Perfectionist partner also hurts him/herself directly because the typical perfectionist is stuck in a cycle of self-defeating and over-striving in which each new task is seen as an opportunity for failure, disappointment and harsh self-criticism. That is why it is not surprising that research blames perfectionism for the increasing depressive symptoms.
It is usually impossible for a perfectionist to turn off this behavior when he/she gets home. That kind of authoritarian treatment of your children will only result in their lifelong resentment of your parenting and create fear of you and insecurity in them. Your mate on the other hand will either bear, in silence, this intolerable situation or NOT. In other words, he/she will take the children and walk out the door.
At home, perfectionism leads to a sense of ongoing disappointment and disapproval from others, which in turn triggers feelings that one’s future relationships will never improve and are doomed to fail. Feelings that they will never belong, fit in, or feel comfortable around others, subsequently this leaves perfectionists and those around them depressed.
Perfectionists are a product of Nature/Nurture, i.e., some are ‘encoded’ (in the womb) traits, in personality and the other is how and by whom we are brought up. Perfectionists are born, but parenting is a key factor in whether this perfection seeking person develops a balanced sense of the pros and cons of looking for perfection. Domineering and demanding (perfectionist) parents often raise children who are afraid of making mistakes and will strive to do “everything perfect”, to please the parent who has these traits. This creates a never ending vicious circle with the child/children never living up to these unreasonable expectations and doing so becomes a life-time habit, difficult to break.
So, if you are a perfectionist or demand perfection from those around you, we close with the question: How’s that working for you? And remember only Nature is perfect. So, go out, take a walk, and enjoy it.