This common trait is a red flag of a toxic boss, says ex-IBM CEO: 'I used to think it was a great skill'

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 13: Ginni Rometty speaks onstage at "Featured Speaker: Leading with Good Power" during the 2023 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Hilton Austin on March 13, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)
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Perfectionism might seem like a great quality for a boss to have. It's actually pretty toxic, says Ginni Rometty, former president and CEO of IBM.

Rometty worked at the tech giant for 39 years, starting as a systems engineer in 1981 and rising to the top post in 2012 before stepping down in 2020. In her early days as a boss, she was a poster-child for perfectionism, she said at the 2023 World Business Forum summit on Wednesday.

"My nickname in my early career was Red Pen. I mean, you'd send anything to me [and I'd send it back] completely red," Rometty, 66, said. "I used to think that was a great skill ... to find every mistake and improve it."

A wake-up call from a colleague helped her realize that her obsession with finding mistakes was negatively impacting her employees, she said.

"One person was like, 'You know, people just don't even want to try hard, because you're going to change it and fix it. It's never going to be good enough,''' said Rometty. "That's pretty disabling for people … I was disempowering them. Of course, it was never my intent, but I learned to stop it."

Your perfectionist boss may think they're showing you how to be detail-oriented. Instead, they could be harming your team's anxiety and productivity, Rometty noted.

"Perfectionism is the enemy of progress," she said. "And it's what polarizes people, ideologically. And this is why we make no progress on many things."

How to deal with your perfectionist boss

Perfectionism is a growing problem for the next generation of professionals, according to psychologist Kate Rasmussen.

"As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists," Rasmussen told the BBC in 2018. "We're starting to talk about how it's heading toward an epidemic and public health issue."

If you want to do something about your perfectionist boss, you can start by helping them recognize that they're creating a negative environment — for both the workplace and themselves. They'll either burn out or lock themselves in a cycle of endless procrastination, mental health author Morra Aarons-Mele told CNBC Make It in February.

Awareness alone may help. The more someone knows about their tendencies, the more they can focus on changing them, Aarons-Mele said — and the less time you'll spend hovering over your computer deconstructing your work at the expense of your mental health.

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