The Highlands Company Blog

How Perfectionistic Leaders Can Prevent Burnout

Being a leader in today’s world is challenging at the best of times. Uncertainty, quiet resignation, wellness, and diversity & inclusion issues are all top of mind. Yet, for the perfectionistic leader, there are further challenges. Let’s start by looking at the motivators of the perfectionist to understand some of their challenges.

Is Perfectionism Healthy or Unhealthy?

When I looked deeper at the academic research, I realized that my perfectionistic tendencies made it hard to manage work and life stressors. Yet like many people, I did not realize I was a perfectionist. The key was understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy work motivators.

Healthy motivators focus on wanting to do your best and making progress towards personally meaningful goals and excellence. On the other hand, unhealthy motivators—in this case, perfectionism—are usually counterproductive. Perfectionism exerts self-imposed pressure to maintain unrealistic high standards to gain approval from others. And when you don’t meet those standards, you beat yourself up.

Perfectionism, Resilience and Burnout

Perfectionism can be a heavy load to carry. The constant pressure to achieve high standards can create ongoing anxiety and stress when stressors come along at work. Perfectionists are ill-equipped to deal with stressors and are less resilient than their resilient colleagues.

They are likely to feel threatened and helpless during stressful times (i.e., wobbly). As such, they are apt to use unhealthy habits (wobblers) that create further stress. For example, if they encounter a difficult task at work, they may struggle by themselves rather than reach out for help to avoid appearing vulnerable or incompetent. Working long hours with little opportunity to recharge or renew will deplete their energy levels and create more pressure. All these unhealthy habits only reinforce the identity of the less resilient perfectionist individual.

Because they are less resilient, perfectionistic leaders may create more stressors for their teams. Not only may their stress levels affect the team’s overall well-being, but their pressure to maintain high standards may affect their leadership style. For example, they may try to micromanage if they believe there is a chance of the team’s work not being up to par.

Continued stress over time is likely to result in burnout with exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of personal accomplishment.

Use Natural Abilities to Build Resilience

Perfectionists may not be self-aware of or appreciate their abilities, instead pursuing work that matches up with status, approval, and outside influences. Also, they may be working at positions which require abilities that they don’t have, creating unnecessary stress and depleting energy levels.

The Highlands Ability Battery (HAB) can help perfectionists become self-aware about their abilities and style preferences at work so that they can achieve a better career fit. Pursuing work aligned with their preferences will help them become more resilient and experience less stress. For example, an extroverted specialist can seek opportunities to be around people and share their subject matter expertise through workshops, presentations, and other group settings.

Burnout Be Gone

In my recently released book, Burnout Be Gone, I explore the many reasons for perfectionism among leaders, and offer a variety of strategies to help keep overwhelm and stress at bay. Highlights include:

1. Learning to be more resilient often feels like a nice-to-have skill, but it quickly becomes necessary when burnt out. If you have difficulty managing your stressors at work, don’t wait until you are burnt out to learn some helpful habits. Doing the same old thing and hoping life will get better might work for a while, and then it won’t.

To be healthier, you must be prepared to make some changes—one tiny tweak at a time. You will feel empowered and more hopeful as you experiment with each new habit. For example, you could start by looking back at the end of the day, seeing the good and reflecting on your wins to feel more confident.

2. You can train your mind to become less reactive to stressors crossing your path. Over time, stress and overwhelm become ingrained in your way of being, and you automatically react to even minor stressors. You can become less reactive by working towards a calmer, more relaxed brain and learning to recognize and recover when you get stressed. Emotional regulation is vital here.

3. Compassion is key for Perfectionists. When you are compassionate towards yourself, your world will change for the better; loving and accepting yourself rather than judging yourself will help you feel confident and secure.

You can also learn to be more compassionate to others and build up a strong support network. With more compassion towards yourself, you can work towards improving, making progress, and thinking about personally meaningful work. You will be able to take more risks knowing that you will be okay if you fail, and you might even be able to create more realistic goals.

Finally, with compassion, you will be able to work less by having the courage to delegate, say no, set boundaries and add periods to rest and play for self-care. The result of the compassionate approach is work-life balance, healthy relationships, vitality, and resilience to better manage stressors at work.

I look forward to hearing perfectionistic leaders say, “The compassionate approach is worth it” and “Burnout be gone.”

“As a Highlands Certified Consultant, I enjoy enabling people to work to their strengths and consider their career options more confidently. I partner with clients in their 20-50’s to assess, reflect, explore and finally transition to more meaningful and satisfying work.”

Nicola McCrabbe, PCC is an Executive Leadership Coach and author of the recently released Burnout Be Gone: Healthy Habits for the Overwhelmed Perfectionist at Work.

To learn more about Nicola and her work, visit

Nicola McCrabbe, ICF Professional Certified Leadership Coach at Nicola McCrabbe Coaching discusses the most valuable skill in today’s competitive job market, key takeaways from her session at the ISA Calgary Show and what trend people should get ahead of.