Do you greet every new task with the fear of failure? Do you set unrealistic expectations for yourself and become upset when you do not meet them? Do you feel like even when you try your best, it is never enough? If you answered yes to any of these questions or know of someone on your team who might, you’re probably dealing with perfectionism at work.
Being a perfectionist at work is a double-edged sword. It can motivate you to perform with excellence, but it can also set you up for failure with its unattainable goals. In this post, we dive into the psychology behind the perfectionist personality type, explore the different types of perfectionism at work, learn how to recognize it in yourself and harness its power, and detail how to mitigate its negative effects in the workplace.
Signs You Are a Perfectionist at Work
- You set unrealistic standards and unattainable goals
- You have a need to be in control
- You are very critical of yourself and/or others
- You are driven by a fear of failure and avoid it at all costs
- You have trouble delegating tasks to others
- You get defensive when receiving feedback or constructive criticism
- You tend not to celebrate your successes or still find fault in them
- You never feel good enough and see your mistakes as proof of that
- Your self-worth and likeability are determined by your achievements
- You are persistently burdened by guilt long after you’ve ‘failed’
- You avoid taking on tasks or participating in activities where you won’t excel
- You are very hard on yourself when you make a mistake
What Is Perfectionism?
According to the American Psychological Association, the term perfectionism is defined as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.” Perfectionists set unbelievably lofty goals that simply cannot be attained, inevitably setting themselves up for failure and disappointment. Since we are only human and perfection doesn’t exist in the natural world, this mindset is not only impossible to achieve but extremely unhealthy, leading to higher rates of anxiety and depression. And it is on the rise– according to a 2018 case study that investigated over 40,000 college students across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., millennials and generation Z are far more likely to become perfectionists than their predecessors.
Types of Perfectionism
When we refer to the perfectionist personality type, we are often talking about “self-oriented perfectionism” which refers to an individual and their unique perception of themselves. There are, however, three different types of perfectionism found in society and, consequently, in the workplace.
1. Self-oriented perfectionism
This type is directed inwardly and is derived from an individual’s point of view. You and you alone are the only one demanding perfection of yourself.
2. Socially-prescribed perfectionism
This is the belief that others are harshly judging you and they require you to show a level of perfection as payment for social acceptance.
3. Other-oriented perfectionism
Directed towards others, this type of perfectionist is hypercritical of those around them and demands perfection from them.
How Perfectionism Can Help You
If it isn’t taken to an extreme, perfectionism at work can be a good thing. It means that you are a high achiever and never settle for less than high-quality work. You are prepared for worst-case scenarios, detail oriented, organized, and enthusiastically driven. A perfectionist mindset can fuel your determination in the face of obstacles, driving you to accomplish the goals you have set no matter what comes your way. You will be dedicated to your work, motivated, and work longer hours to get the job done.
How Perfectionism Can Harm You
Perfectionism at work can often be worn as a badge of pride but it is not necessarily a positive personality trait. It is a perception of self that can push you further away from finding the success you strive for. Research shows that anxiety over making a mistake and the fear of failure can actually hinder your ability to focus and complete a task. It can also lead to toxic comparisons, stifled creativity, low self-esteem, and procrastination.
It can also affect your outlook on life and poison it through a lens of dissatisfaction. A constant search for perfection and a hyperbolic view of everyone’s flaws can distort your view of reality, making you feel that nothing is ever good enough. Several comprehensive studies have been conducted to investigate and understand the negative effects perfectionism has on a person’s mental and physical health. In two such studies, suicide ideation, suicidal attempts, and severe chronic pain were directly associated with perfectionism and those who exhibited perfectionist behavior.
So, is perfectionism a medical diagnosis? No, though it can be harmful when taken to the extreme. Perfectionism is itself only a personality trait but it is linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health issues, as mentioned above. If you feel like you are suffering from one or any of these conditions, you should reach out to a trusted medical professional immediately.
How to Keep Your Perfectionism in Check
See the power in setting high standards for yourself, but don’t let these self-imposed standards have too much power over you. It is a good thing to always strive to do your best but when your best doesn’t produce the result you want, look deeper into why that is happening. Are the results you want unattainable? If so, how can you adjust your goals and the path you take to reach them? Find a trusted colleague or mentor to help you identify if the goals you set are realistic or not. If you’re still having trouble defining an achievable performance standard, the SMART method is also a great tool to use.
Specific: The goal should identify a specific action or event.
Measurable: The goal should be quantifiable.
Achievable: The goal should be attainable given available resources.
Realistic: The goal should have a high likelihood of success.
Timely: The goal should have a set time period in which it will be accomplished.
Focus on the big picture. Perfectionism can often cause a sort of tunnel vision that prevents you from seeing things the way they really are. If you are getting overwhelmed, step back from what you are doing, take a deep breath, and find some perspective.
Take hold of any critical thoughts and set them aside. Remove the magnifying glass you’ve placed on your mistakes and failures and force yourself to acknowledge the good in your behavior. Look for your successes, especially the small ones, and sit with them. They are your friends.
Make a list of the pros and cons concerning your perfectionism. What are you accomplishing with this kind of behavior? What does it cost you to do so? Are the costs too high? Find the balance between your quality of life and your perfectionism. If you are sacrificing too much of your mental or physical health to reach your perfectionist goals, consider altering your behavior and make your well-being a priority.
How to Manage an Employee With Perfectionism
Avoid the phrase ’it doesn’t have to be perfect.’ In a perfectionist’s mind, it really does. Perfectionists will tend to take more time than necessary on a project to avoid any mistakes. Help them understand that you aren’t asking them to produce mediocre work; instead, you’re asking them to use their time more wisely. Set hard deadlines and don’t deviate. Help the perfectionist manage their time better and encourage efficiency.
Perfectionists tend to have a difficult time receiving constructive feedback and often become defensive. Be aware that they will likely focus directly on all the negatives and dismiss any positives. Encourage them to look at their failures and mistakes as data, moments in time to learn from, and not indictments against their person. If your delivery isn’t working, invite them into the process and ask them how they would best receive the information.
The most interesting takeaway from perfectionism at work?
It does not affect your job performance.
Yes, you read that right - it’s one crazy plot twist but it’s true. The Georgia Institute of Technology conducted a meta-analysis of 30 years of studies that examined two groups of perfectionism: the “excellence seeking” and the “failure-avoiding” perfectionists. The end result found that there was no positive or negative correlation between being a perfectionist and performance on the job.
So, next time you’re putting too much pressure on yourself, stop, look, and listen to yourself. Reflect on how much getting it exactly right will actually affect the outcome of what you’re doing. And remember, nobody and nothing is perfect.
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