Quick show of hands: do you consider yourself to have a Type A personality?  I see your hand up.  How do I know this?  Nearly everyone in the compliance profession is a Type A personality.  People drawn to the compliance profession are frequently perfectionists who hold themselves to a very high standard.  After all, our job is to set, maintain, and enforce standards, and this includes enforcing standards upon ourselves.  While having high personal standards can be a good thing, too much pressure to be perfect can be counterproductive, causing paralysis in decision making and uncontrolled anxiety.   

Anxiety is rampant in our profession right now, and for good reason.  Many compliance officers are locked in their houses, working away from their offices, where they don’t feel as connected to the business.  The Wall Street Journal ran an article today stating that many companies are reducing headcount and/or budget in compliance departments.  And of course, nearly all people are fearful of getting sick.   

According to psychologists, when these fears move from fleeting to constant, they can lead to anxiety.  Many Type A people try to control anxiety by being “perfect.”  If you’re dealing with perfectionism or profound fear of getting it wrong, here are some ways of escaping the fear loop.  

No 1: Acknowledge and Accept that there may not be a Right Answer 

Fear of being wrong often leads to paralysis and the inability to commit to a course of action.  This is especially true when difficult decisions need to be made that aren’t binary right and wrong.  For instance, let’s say that because of company cost-cutting, you’re asked to reduce your budget for third-party due diligence.  To do this, you could change your risk model to have fewer third-parties undergo deep-dive reviews.  Alternatively, you could decide to exempt certain categories of third-parties so that fewer third-parties go through the review at all.  Lastly, you could move some staff members to different tasks with different cost centers (like training or policy management) so that the third-party budget is reduced.  This would cause delays in processing third-parties, but the budget would be reduced as requested.   

There isn’t one right path – you simply must make a decision and go with it.  By acknowledging and accepting that there isn’t one right path, it will be easier to commit to a course of action. Author Dan Brown said, “Life is full of difficult decisions, and winners are those who make them.”   

No. 2: Decide in Advance to Learn from Mistakes, rather than Punish Yourself

Neuroscientist Dr. Shannon Irvine instructs listeners of her podcast to decide in advance how they will choose to feel if things go badly.  She advises that if you’re up against a tough decision, decide that no matter what the outcome is, you will choose to learn from the experience rather than punishing yourself for not choosing correctly when the answer wasn’t obvious.  By deciding in advance how you will feel, you prime your brain to have the reaction you chose in advance, which can go a long way to helping you feel better no matter what.

No. 3: Modify Your Standards

Clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., says that “modifying your own standards away from perfectionism is very important in reducing anxiety.”  Rather than thinking of “lowering” your standards, think about modifying them by choosing a base level that is lower than perfect, but still good enough. For instance, if you’re going to present to the Board, instead of deciding that your performance will only be acceptable if you have an answer to every single question, decide that your performance will reach your standards if you can answer some questions in the room, and follow up with answers to each question within 48 hours of the end of the meeting.  By “lowering” your standards, you’ll be more able to be successful, which will reduce anxiety before the meeting.

Heightened fear and anxiety are likely to be present in the near future.  Confucius, Voltaire, and Shakespeare have all been credited with variations of the phrase, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”  When you apply this philosophy to yourself and your choices, you’ll be a better and more effective leader.