The Perils of Perfectionism

managing-perfectionism

Some individuals seek to receive accolades by describing themselves as a perfectionist. This can be a form of “back door bragging,” especially if they disingenuously refer to perfectionism as a curse (e.g., “I can’t help it if I want things to be perfect!”). After all, a person would not want to be identified as the opposite of perfect. Perfectionists explain that their desire to have things just right is the reason they take longer, work harder, or miss deadlines. In addition, they are known to claim they would rather not do a task at all if they cannot do it perfectly. Perfectionists see the world in black and white or dichotomous terms. Being perfectionistic becomes a badge of honor that differentiates them from the rest of the world. However, by requiring perfection of themselves at all times, they become victims of their own irrational thinking that perfection is even possible.

A common but misguided thought in business is that perfection is not only beneficial but critical to success. We have spell-check to make certain our documents are error-free. We are told that “God is in the details.” In sports, the adage is that “practice makes perfect.” Although emphasis on perfection is very important in certain areas, it can be an impediment in others. If you are a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist, there is no argument about wanting a physician or scientist to have a very high degree of precision. This would also be true for areas associated with safety, such as a zero-defect tolerance for problems with automobile airbags. In most professional areas, however, seeking perfection often leads to a diminishing return—the cost in time and money.

Another line of thought that is more relevant to the business professional is captured best by the phrase, “Perfectionism is the enemy of the excellent.” In business, urgency typically does not allow for, or even require, perfect solutions. For example, university studies have found that perfectionistic professors have lower research productivity. Findings showed that a higher level of perfectionism was associated with a lower number of total publications as well as a lower number of first-authored publications.

Psychologically, perfectionism is rooted in insecurity and emanates from a deep-seated fear of failure, which is self-defeating. Some suggest that perfectionism is a form of self-abuse because achieving perfection is an impossible task. In its extreme, perfectionism can be seen in obsessive-compulsive behaviors, including constantly cleaning, checking, and double-checking to make sure everything is in its place. Perfectionists view their professional work as an extension of themselves and do not have clear boundaries between themselves and their career. As a result, they take setbacks and criticism personally, and can have difficulty with authentic self-disclosure on the off-chance they may reveal something akin to a flaw. Perfectionists do not acknowledge that humans are incapable of perfection.

Imagine looking for perfection when there is little or any of it to be found. This explains why perfectionists tend to be pessimistic. Their world is always a glass half-empty. Because of their need for exactness, they do not easily trust or work well with others. They can be critical and judgmental of the work of others. Secretly, they can take pleasure in the failure of others and use it to reinforce their own perfectionism. They can demonstrate excessive control needs, and, as managers, they tend to micromanage others.

Perfectionists epitomize the saying of people who “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The larger context escapes them because they get over-involved in the details. They see the hole in the doughnut, but miss the doughnut altogether. They often procrastinate starting work because of the enormity involved in making their work too exact or meticulous. They do not have internal monitors that keep them from reaching the point of diminishing return in completing their work. They can never settle for “good enough,” because all they can see is what is left undone. Even when they complete a work product, they are dissatisfied. They are constantly “moving the goalposts.” They can think that catastrophic things will occur in the event that they leave something out or make a mistake. In its extreme, perfectionism can be associated with illness, including depression and anorexia, and even suicide.

There is little about forms of perfectionism that is good for the individual or for the business. If you recognize these traits in yourself, here are ways for you to diminish your perfectionistic tendencies (and let yourself enjoy life more).

Join the Human Race

Acknowledge that humans are flawed and the rest of the world seems to live well enough with more lenient standards. Nobody is perfect. Engage in more positive self-talk:

  • All I can do is my best.
  • People will like me even if I make a mistake.
  • People will respect me completing work in a timely manner, rather than taking forever trying to do it perfectly.

This will help you combat the stringent set of internal negative demands you often hear.

Put Things in Perspective

Unless you really are a brain surgeon or rocket scientist, there is little negative consequence for a “good enough” outcome. Before embarking on a task, spend a few minutes thinking about the value of the task and the degree of work actually required. Ask yourself what level of imperfection you can tolerate. Calibrate your work effort to your new, more reasonable standard.

Practice Saying No

When you are requested to do something outside of your work domain, consider turning the work down. Determine what the real consequences are for saying “no.” It will not be as severe as you imagined.

Practice Grace

If you are managing others, become intentional about allowing them to complete work in their own way, without excessive oversight from you. Compliment their work product and you will probably find that they want to please you and take delight in your praise.

Reward Yourself

When you do something that demonstrates that you have reduced your level of perfectionism on a project, engage in something you really enjoy doing, such as being with friends, a nice meal, or some recreational activity. The good feeling of the reward can encourage you to manage your perfectionistic tendencies.

The path to managing perfectionism is not an easy one. It requires practice, patience, and being kind to yourself. The ultimate benefit derived from overcoming perfectionism is that you will have a happier and an even more successful life.