How Perfectionism Holds Women Back at Work

November 14, 2016, 1:00 AM UTC
Teacher preparing pencils for school day
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “What advice would you give to women who hope to make to the C-suite?” is written by Lori Bailey, global head of special lines at Zurich Insurance.

Photography has long been one of my favorite pastimes outside of work. Whether it’s photographing family members, sporting events, or nature, I have always found great enjoyment in trying to capture that “perfect” picture. For me, it’s a unique view of the world that only I can provide. It’s exciting, challenging, and most of all—fun. When I first started with this hobby many years ago, it was with an analog camera that only took film, so I only had a finite number of opportunities to capture that perfect image. Not wanting to waste film, I would constantly hesitate, double-check, and hold back from hitting the shutter for fear of not getting it right—or even worse—making a mistake.

This tendency to hold back and avoid mistakes wasn’t just something I experienced in photography. When I started in my career, I always wanted to make sure everything was done right. Whether it was a business letter, project, or just a simple email, I put so much emphasis on making sure it was perfect that I often lost sight of what I was trying to achieve. Even worse, it made constructive feedback harder to accept.

See also: Here’s When Women Need to Act More Like Men at Work

This quest for perfection is arguably one of the biggest hurdles that many women face as they progress in their careers. It can lead to an avoidance of risk and a lack of confidence, which can put women squarely in the crossroads of advancement and opportunity. Fortunately, though, as I grew both personally and professionally, I came to recognize that this was holding me back. I realized I was too focused on doing something perfectly, rather than just doing something.


As women advance their careers with an eye on the C-suite, they must learn to let go of these tendencies, take risks, and most importantly, give themselves permission to make mistakes once in a while. By giving yourself this license, you free yourself up to try new things, which, in turn, allows you to be more innovative, creative, and confident. It builds on your leadership skills and enables you to be a better problem-solver. Most importantly, however, it demonstrates to others that you’re human, and when you’re human, you’re relatable. And when you’re relatable, you’re not just a good leader—you’re a great leader.

I recently photographed a sporting event for my daughter and her cheerleading team. I have since upgraded to a digital camera and, over the course of a two-hour period, took over 300 pictures—many more than the 24 or 36 I might have taken several years ago. Admittedly, many of them were blurry and others weren’t even centered, but I had fun trying different settings and angles to see what might work. And in the end, I captured one “perfect” shot that showed the joy and excitement of my daughter’s team. Ironically, it was a shot that happened by mistake.

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