The pitfalls of being a PERFECTIONIST

Every office has at least one perfectionist – that person who clings to rules and procedures and expects everyone to follow his or her lead. Perfectionists hold themselves to high standards, are diligent workers, and can help reign in an unruly workplace. However, they can also be viewed as controlling, overly critical, or as micromanagers in the eyes of subordinates and colleagues.

When tired, bored, or under increased pressure, these perfectionist qualities can become detrimental to their performance, negatively impacting their own work and that of others.

A recent article published by CBC Nov 2014 noted that perfectionist have a pesky habit of spending way too much time on inconsequential details that can lead to challenges with both the boss and their colleagues.  Perfectionism does not lend itself well to management and leadership roles.

In a white paper written by Ryan Ross, he advised managers to just let it go. Research conducted by Jeff Foster and Steve Nichols of Hogan Assessment Systems challenges this perception and provides an in-depth exploration of the results of perfectionism in the workplace. Their findings, which are described below, show that perfectionism may result in both positive and negative outcomes. Hogan’s research shows that perfectionists’ meticulous nature may be useful and even important in many situations. They are likely to be good with details and strictly adhere to the rules. They are strong role models who strive to uphold the highest standards of professionalism in their workplace and display positive characteristics, like being orderly, attentive to details, and fastidious.

In contrast, perfectionists often have trouble prioritizing their work and believe that every task needs to be done equally well, even when that is impossible. In their quest to ensure everything is done right, they often have trouble delegating responsibilities, which in turn deprives their subordinates of the opportunity to learn and grow. Their resistance to change suggests they will rarely be a source of true innovation.

At their worst, perfectionists can be fussy, particular, nit-picking micromanagers who deprive their subordinates of any choice or control over their own work. Such behaviors alienate their staff members and may cause them to refuse to take any initiative, instead waiting to be told what do to and how they should do it. Perfectionists are likely to rate themselves high on financial acumen, indicating that they are good at working with equations, understanding complex financial information and forecasting future business and market trends. However, supervisors and peers have less confidence in the financial acumen of perfectionists.

Traits of a Perfectionist

Perfectionists strain compulsively and unceasingly toward unobtainable goals, and measure their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment. Pressuring one-self to achieve unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment. Perfectionists tend to be harsh critics of themselves when they fail to meet their standards and often end up with a number of negative feelings including anxiety, depression, frustration, anger and guilt.  At more severe levels, perfectionism can create such problems as low self-esteem, writers block, test anxiety, procrastination, social anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, immobilization and suicidal thoughts or actions.

Characteristics of perfectionists include: detail oriented, focus on rules and structure, high expectations, neat appearance, mistakes are avoided, confidence is low, highly organized, significant self-doubt regarding decisions, have difficulty trusting the work of others.

In a research conducted by York University, Erindale University of Toronto and University of Winnipeg, a sample of 131 students comprising of 56 males and 75 females found that academic measures of procrastination and general procrastination is associated with fear of failure, task aversive-ness which stems from social disapproval from individuals with perfectionist standards for others.

Being a Perfectionist is hurting your Career

Meggin McIntosh a former professor of education at the University of Nevada at Reno who left academe eight years ago to help professionals deal better with their work life told the Globe and Mail in an article that she has been called the “PhD of Productivity,” but a better title might be “PhD of Perfectionism,” since often that is what she is treating.

About 80 to 90 per cent of her clients are struggling with a life that is out of control because of their perfectionist tendencies. “They are working themselves to the bone, 10, 12 and 14 hours a day, because they take too many things to that perfect level and are striving for the impossible. They have perfectionism running through their DNA,” she says in an interview.

She understands, because she is a perfectionist too. And although she repeatedly says it’s in the DNA, she knows that’s technically incorrect. It feels as if it’s in their DNA, part of them. But perfectionism is a learned behaviour, probably picked up in childhood, as parents, teachers and others indicated that top performance was routinely expected. 

“Push” vs “Pull”

High achievers tend to be pulled toward their goals by a desire to achieve them, and are happy with any steps made in the right direction. Perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them, and see anything less than a perfectly met goal as a failure.

Underneath it all, perfectionists are often plagued by guilt and shame. Maladaptive perfectionism — a drive to perfection that generally has social roots, and a feeling of pressure to succeed that derives from external, rather than internal, sources is highly correlated with depression, anxiety, shame and guilt.

In a research conducted by UBC on perfectionism in athletes and exercisers it was concluded that perfectionism is primarily maladaptive.  While world class elite athletes who have demonstrated history of extreme perfectionism (e.g. Bobby Jones, John McEnroe and Serena Williams); perfectionism seems to have worked for these individuals, often such athletes have documented forms of distress that can be attributed directly to their perfectionist ways, and success emerges only when following the development of emotional self-control.

Perfectionist athletes will be protected, to some degree from the “perils of perfectionism” if they experience success and if they have developed a proactive, task-oriented approach to coping with difficulties and setbacks.  A key aspect of coping process for these athletes is to develop a sense of flexibility, so that they adjust their goals in accordance with situational demands and current levels of personal functioning.

In an article written by James Nolan dated Jan 2014, “Perfectionism is a mental illness and it ruin my life”. He admitted to being neurotic perfectionist although a symptom of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, neurotic perfectionism is different than straight-up Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Though an OCD sufferer has a compulsion that sometimes relieves an obsession, he or she knows that that behavior is “wrong” and irrational. The neurotic perfectionist believes the inverse: He thinks that in spite of the pain he’s enduring, his perfectionism is helping him reach standards he otherwise couldn’t.

He also stated that lately his work has slowed to the point where he spends days rewriting the same sentence over and over. He believe the line will get better, and it does, but what is a reasonable amount of time to spend on a single sentence? Thirty seconds, two minutes, an hour? Certainly not a couple of days.

Over the years, an abundance of studies—particularly those by psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett—have found links between perfectionism and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, drug addiction, and increased suicide risk. Studies have also found links between perfectionism and physical problems like asthma, migraines, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome. Because of this, perfectionists take more time off work and visit the doctor more than the average person.

Perfectionists also have a 51 percent increased risk of death due to—researchers suspect—high levels of stress.

It’s only natural to want to avoid making mistakes, but imperfection is a part of being human. And while perfectionists are often praised for their abilities, being constantly anxious about details hold them back from reaching their full potential.

In this fully revised and updated second edition of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough written by Martin M Anthony PHD and Richard P Swinson MD, strategies for coping with Perfectionism book awarded by The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Self-Help Seal of Merit it outlines how one can discover the root cause of their perfectionism, explore the impact of perfectionism on their life, and find new, proven-effective coping skills to help them overcome anxiety about making mistakes. This guide also includes tips for dealing with other perfectionists and discussions about how perfectionism is linked to worry, depression, anger, social anxiety, and body image. As readers complete the exercises in this book, they will find it easier and easier to keep worries at bay and enjoy life – imperfections and all.

Perfectionists have plenty of qualities that make them assets to any organization. However, the same attributes that can be strengths in most situations can be disruptive when an individual is overwhelmed or facing increased stress. Understanding that perfectionism is a complex characteristic that can lead to both positive and negative outcomes in the workplace is a crucial step in managing a perfectionist’s performance.

Tips for managers in the workplace includes:

  1. Managing priorities – getting it in order – understand that it not possible to get everything done, learn to make important choices.
  2. Avoid criticizing and appreciate the value of delegating assignments.  Managers are encouraged to use positive feedback to help colleagues to attain higher standards.
  3. The 80-20 rule of productivity – only 20 percent of a perfectionist work leads 80 percent productivity – learn to identify and focus on the most important work rather than trying to spreading themselves too thin.
  4. Stay calm under pressure – perfectionists have a tendency to become anxious or high-strung under pressure – learning to manage symptoms of stress is critical for productivity.
  5. View work more productively – managers should challenge themselves to replace negative beliefs e.g. urges to criticize when work is not of high standards to more compassionate view.
  6. For managers struggling with how to cope, they can contact their Employee Assistance Program or HR Managers.




Compiled and written by Sally Balram, Recruiting Consultant


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