How Women Rise – Let it go and refocus to outgrow perfectionism (Habit #7)

I love coffee. I enjoy drinking this brew, and when I pour myself one with time, I would always drink it from a glass as it has to look beautiful as well. The foam should settle before I slowly pour in the coffee forming a thin brown line. I worked as a Barista throughout my last year in school and during my studies, to increase my pocket money falling in love with gastronomy and coffee. One place I remember vividly was the first coffee-to-go place in Stuttgart, the city I lived in, where I learned how to make the perfect coffee and instantly connect with people. Sundays was a quiet day at the coffee shop and therefore the onboarding day of new employees where all that mattered was to perfection the preparation of the variety of hot bean juices. And I did that to the point of suggesting a new way to place the straw because I enjoyed making every café latte that went over the counter. For me, this coffee shop in Stuttgart is the birthplace of doing things properly with the aim for perfection and at the same time innovate the process.

My barista experience was also the first time I learned to let it go. Let go of perfectionism to pour the perfect coffee, when all the customers wanted was to get that orange cup and be on their way finally. Because except for Sundays, any other weekday had peak times whilst Saturdays were crowded from early morning to late evening. Mind you this was at a time, where there were no Starbucks in Germany and it was the first “coffee-to-go”-place in Stuttgart! Customers waited for 30 minutes to get their hot cup of liquid energy (coffee), and we made a four-digit-revenue in 8 hours with coffee! I’m talking about EUROS and yes, I wanted one of the four slots on a busy Saturday!

I learned to let go of perfectionism the hard way by nearly losing the job I wanted so desperately which took me quite some time to get, as everyone wanted to work at that trendy place. Thankfully, I quickly learned that my boss did not want me to create perfectly shaped café lattes. Instead, he wanted me to become a mass producer and connect with the guests during the 30 seconds it took to prepare the ‘Cupped Lighting’(coffee). That was the first time, I learned to not focus on being the best, but be there in the moment with the people, asking questions and paying attention to them. I learned as well that connecting with people was a strength of mine, I was not aware of. People cared about the interaction more than about the perfect foam, and suddenly, I was on Saturday duty with people greeting me before their order.

Nonetheless, the perfection trap is still my main habit and although I got over it when it comes to preparing coffee – I do still tap into it with stubborn regularity. Because I fall into the perfection trap quite a bit, I am mindful of how to tame the beast.

I can tell you when it happens: when I don’t pay attention to it.

I can tell you why it happens: because something is super-duper important to me.

I can tell you who suffers when it happens: the people I work with closely.


Let’s look at an example from the perspective of how it holds other women back in the workplace from Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith and their book ‘How Women Rise,’ which discusses The Perfection Trap. Imagine a super high performer working at a global insurance company in Northern Europe, in Germany. Yes I double-checked that with Sally – Vera is a perfectionist from Germany. Vera is an intellectual powerhouse who works extraordinarily hard and is super organized. She speaks five languages and is an outstanding public speaker who scored significant successes in both operations and finance. She is the natural CEO candidate, but her perfectionism ended up undermining her when she was being scouted for the position as CEO. Co-workers as well as peers, respected her successes, but her perfectionism made it hard to work with her. She was described as overcontrolling, judgmental, and always finding ways to smother other people’s ideas. Instead, she would rather err on the side of caution and avoid risk, rather than experience failure.

Rather than being innovative, which most of her team were, her desire to be perfect kept her focus on everything she could control and micromanage every step of the way. The perfection trap cost her this senior role as she was unable to delegate tasks, a critical ability which requires trust, the willingness to take risks, and a big vision of what the organization could become.


If you recognize yourself in the perfection trap, you can see in the case study how much impact it has, not only on you but also on others. These impacts include:

  • Causing stress for oneself and the people around you,
  • Distracting you from the big-picture orientation and keeps you stuck on the detail,
  • Setting you up for disappointment as perfection is unrealistic as you deal with people and not robots.

A lot of good reasons to look into the habit, so let’s start right away. Draw an isosceles triangle – yes that was a joke, any triangle will do!

When you now look at the three corners, name them time, quality, and money. The triple is usually called the triple constraint and they are the three factors to consider in any project management decision. The idea behind the triple is that they don’t go together. You can pick any two, but never all three and a good project manager will prioritize conversations around, making stakeholders understand that they will get two out of three. The reason is simple if we look at this equation:

Quality           =          Time                x          Money

You will get good quality if you spend time and money, the lesser money you spend, the more time you will need or the more money you spend the lesser time you will need. If quality is your goal, you can only achieve it by investing either time of money.

This equation I have used for managing my perfectionism and reworded the parts a bit: Quality on the perfect triangle you drew becomes “High Quality”, Money becomes “Low Cost” and Time becomes “High Priority”. When I say let it go, I mean to let go of the belief, that the triple is achievable. When I say refocus, I mean to focus on the two that matter most to you. Perfectionism would mean to get the triple and focus on all three factors. Outgrowing perfectionism means to find the pair that matters and focus on “reaching Pareto completion” (check out the article on Overvaluing Expertise for the “Pareto tool”.)

My adaptation of the above principle for managing your perfectionism looks now like this:

You have three possible solutions at hand:

  1. Fast & Good
  2. Cheap & Good
  3. Cheap & Fast

The first solution of Fast & Good will lead to a high cost. That is, because you either need to employ more people, than needed if given more time or you will employ a handful of senior professionals to get the job done quickly because of their experience.

The second solution of Cheap & Good will lead to reprioritization of the work, which becomes low priority. You want to deliver good work results and not spend any money, means, that you may need to skill up in the process or review and improve your work along the way a couple of times.

The third solution of Cheap & Fast will lead to an outcome of low quality. If you employ cheap personal and rush through the process you will have to disregard a high-quality outcome if you want to stay fair to the people you work with.

All of these solutions are fair and depending on what you work on, it may help to flex around these solutions. The importance of outgrowing your perfectionism is knowing what you are agreeing with yourself to focus on. Every time you deliver high-quality outcomes, it will either take the time or cost a lot of money.

For me for example I’m sitting here writing an article as a somewhat reformed perfectionist, who is ok with Germanisms writing. I could spend another day of rejigging the language and focus on “Good & Cheap” or pay a ghostwriter to make me sound perfect and focus on “Good & Fast”. Or I can be ok with as good as I can do it, which may not be good, but it may be good enough. Is my article the quality of an author? Probably not! Am I an author? Not yet! Do you take something away? [insert your answer] And if it is yes, then, the job is completed good enough!

The article was written by Melissa L. Schlimm-Managing Partner, an Executive Coach and People Developer at The Ameliorate Group. Content inspired by the book called “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgesen-12 habits that hold women back from being successful in their careers as well as my own experience as an executive coach when coaching senior leaders in the workplace.

The Ameliorate Group, Learning Partner with Women@Work, is leadership and corporate coaching consultancy offering a range of bite-sized learning solutions to long-term development programs incorporating executive coaching to achieve organizational goals. The Ameliorate Group aims to superpower your teams and individual capability beyond what you thought was possible.

The first ‘How Woman Rise” program is available across the Middle East through The Ameliorate Group powered by Sally Helgesen. Creating more inclusive workplaces of the future through raising awareness of the habits that hold women back from being more successful in their careers. Encouraging both genders to engage in dialogue and co-creation of solutions and strategies to help women rise at work and in business.

Women@Work Coach -
08 Dec 2020
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