Perfectionism is the uncompromising pursuit of exceptionally high standards. This would appear to be a great characteristic to bring to the workplace.
These high achievers will use their time and energy in the pursuit of doing a first-class job; they will get great results and be enormously committed to the organisation.
But when nothing short of perfect will do, perfectionism turns into an unhealthy characteristic that hinders rather than enhances performance. It causes stress – for the perfectionist and their team – and limits careers.
How does perfectionism cause problems?
Here are some ways that perfectionism can inhibit performance:
1. Procrastination To avoid making mistakes, the perfectionist will either go very slowly in a task or avoid starting it altogether because they fear doing a less than perfect job. They deliver to the very last minute on a deadline, creating stress for people relying on their contribution.
2. Self-criticism Perfectionists judge themselves harshly, sometimes struggling to separate their entire self-worth from the performance of one task. Their self-esteem suffers and they wallow in negative feelings. This can demoralise those around them. It also prevents them from looking impartially at their work, what went well and what can be improved next time.
3. Over-attention to detail Pursuit of perfection can mean so much emphasis on dotted i's and crossed t’s that the main issues get ignored. I see this impacting on the careers of mid-career professionals I coach whose perfectionism, perhaps helpful earlier in their careers, gets in the way when they move into leadership roles and need to think more strategically.
4. Aiming low Rather than risking failure, the perfectionist may protect their self-esteem by settling for second best. The relief they gain is usually outweighed by the longer-term disappointment of unfulfilled potential.
5. Feeling overwhelmed A desire to do everything to the highest possible standard can make us feel completely stressed. To gain a sense of control of our workload it is necessary to prioritise tasks and decide for which ones a “just good enough” approach would suffice.
6. Not setting boundaries This need to do everything perfectly, with limitless high expectations, can lead to a lack of boundaries around the demands of work. It is not appropriate or healthy to work as many hours as necessary to do everything perfectly.
Burning the candles at both ends over a long period has psychological and physical health consequences, contributing to stress absences. This can be exacerbated by a fear of asking for help or delegating; being perfect means avoiding showing any vulnerability or loss of control.
To move forward, the perfectionist needs to understand the consequences of the standard they set themselves and scrutinise the distorted thinking behind it. They can then replace this with more helpful, rational thinking that still strives for high outcomes but in a more sustainable way.
Zena Everett is a former recruiter and now coaches people to be more successful in their careers, either in their current organisation or externally. Visit www.second-careers.co.uk