Understanding workplace perfectionism and how to minimize its adverse effects

We’ve all experienced what it’s like to want something to go exactly as planned, something we’ve created to be flawless, and for others to view what we’ve done or delivered as perfect. Many of us live in this space or know someone who does more often than not – or even, always. While striving for better, pursuing excellence, having non-compromising high standards, continuously improving are common workplace values. There is a dark side to perfectionism, which can significantly impact both individuals and organizations.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a trait/personality characteristic where one constantly strives for the unattainable ideals of flawlessness and perfection. This is accompanied by critical self-evaluation, never being good enough, and concerns about what others think. When intentionally and positively applied towards excellence, it can help one to support and meet milestones and goals.

However, when it’s an ongoing way of being or part of one’s identity, often, the focus is more on unhealthy comparison and avoiding failures, rather than achieving success. The result is that, despite the perfectionist’s significant efforts, the outcome is viewed as unsatisfactory. This not only interferes with attainment of goals and success, but can also significantly increase stress and lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and OCD.

The characteristics, feelings, and beliefs associated with perfectionism include:

  • Fear of failure and of making mistakes (and viewing mistakes as failure)
  • Putting things off due to concern that it won’t be good enough if presented or delivered
  • Fear of disappointing others, of being criticized or rejected
  • Fatalistic thinking and lack of perspective (e.g., not getting praised for a project means it wasn’t good)
  • Focusing on what one ‘should’ do, as opposed to what one wants to do
  • Believing that other people are able to complete projects and attain success easily
  • Being focused on the outcome rather than the process/journey along the way

As Brene Brown states in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life, perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis… Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?”

Perfectionism in the workplace

The attainment of perfection may seem desirable within an organization but, as is the case for individual perfectionists, it can come at a significant cost. Although a focus on continuous high standards and improvement can and does lead to higher levels of productivity and performance, it’s not sustainable. As noted above, it can lead to stress, compromised mental health, exhaustion, disengagement, resentment, and burnout. Further, as the perfectionist may be the person leading or participating in a project or task, the manager overseeing it, or multiple team members, the impact often extends beyond the individual.

Regardless of role and level within an organization, everyone needs to make mistakes and fail on occasion – and be able to constructively talk about and learn from them. Perfectionists, however, view mistakes/failures as a personal flaw or shortcoming. With a need to control the outcome, they also rarely ask for help. This can not only diminish successful outcomes and take away from celebrating ‘wins’. It also unintentionally leads to team members feeling frustrated and unable to work to their strengths. Particularly when the perfectionist is a more senior colleague or a manager.

Perfectionism and inclusivity at work

While the roots of perfectionism are multi-faceted and complex (e.g., related to childhood expectations, trauma, racial and other forms of inequality, etc.). It’s important to understand the role that society, social media, and organizations play in further fueling that standard. Colleen James, Founder of Divonify, asks: “Who and what sets the standard for perfection in the workplace, at home, and within our society?”. Accordingly, it’s important to question whether an organization’s focus on having the highest standards takes into consideration the diversity of people versus an expectation to be a prescribed way.

Racialized individuals and other equity-seeking people often come into the workplace having lived a lifetime of not feeling good enough. They end up working twice as hard for an employer or manager that unintentionally suggests it’s unacceptable/subpar to not meet a certain standard. And they often don’t feel heard or trusted when their ideas don’t align with that standard. In this vein, Author Anne Lamott states in her book, Bird by Bird, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”

How can employers minimize the adverse effects of perfectionism?

Many people are prone to perfectionism and can certainly bring value to an organization. The key for employers is to support these individuals to shine and work to their best, without enabling the dark side. It’s important to take a critical look at what standards are used to measure professionalism, quality, and ‘best’ in your workplace. When organizations are built upon a culture of perfectionism, they require a “mindset shift:”

  • From ‘everything matters’ to ‘what matters most’
  • From the ‘finish line’ to ‘interim milestones’
  • From ‘doing it all’ to ‘doing what we can’

More specifically, in order to minimize the adverse effects of perfectionism:

  • Support people with setting priorities and delegation, the latter being particularly difficult for perfectionists. As a leader, delegate to your managers/teams and hold managers accountable to do so, as well
  • Ensure goals and timelines are reasonable; if you know someone is prone to perfectionism and they say, “yes I can take this on”, or “yes, I can do it in X amount of time”. Either (a) don’t ask them when you know their plate is full or (b) respectfully question what they’ve committed to
  • Don’t simply focus on the outcome, end goal, or accomplishment (i.e., the destination). Rather the journey along the way: the effort, participation, steps taken, process, people engaged, milestones, etc.
  • Focus on what went well, rather than what didn’t
  • Openly encourage talking about failures, mistakes, concerns, and the ‘less than perfect’ outcomes. Normalize it by making debriefs at all levels collaborative and human
  • Celebrate the learning and opportunity that comes from making mistakes

Finally – make it okay to say no, which might necessitate saying no to clients. Consider whether it’s more important to always say yes and simply find a way to support a client in a given timeframe. Or to ensure your people are healthy and able to do their best work, now and in the future.

Jouta’s HR Consultants can work with you to define healthy and inclusive standards for your organization.