Perfectionism in the Workplace
Aiming for perfection isn’t conventionally seen as a bad thing.
In fact, it can often be viewed as a trait that is beneficial for individuals to have because it means they have high standards and a drive for success.
Perfectionism can, as a result, fly under the radar in the workplace due to its association with more positive traits – after all, an employee having strong attention to detail and being highly conscientious isn’t anything to worry about…
What is perfectionism?
The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism 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. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other health problems.’
That last line might seem a little hard-hitting to include in a definition, yet it does hold true.
Perfectionism might once have been considered somewhat of a ‘desirable weakness’ (we’re looking at you, “What’s your biggest weakness?” interview questions), but in recent years our understanding has shifted.
Part of this is due to the push back against hustle culture – the prevalent narrative that in order to be successful you need to continue working regardless of your physical or mental health and wellbeing – and perfectionism is consequently being viewed from a different perspective.
What are the traits of perfectionism?
There are several types of perfectionism (we’ll get into that later) but generally, there are a number of symptoms and traits associated with perfectionism.
– ‘All-or-nothing’ thinking and evaluation of performance (e.g., “I can’t submit this work until it’s perfect.”)
– Motivated and guided by fear (e.g., tasks and goals are worked towards pushed by a fear of not reaching them or falling short)
– Feeling demoralised when goals aren’t met
– Being highly critical of themselves
– Setting unrealistic standards
– Overemphasis on results
– An inability to achieve work satisfaction
– Low self-esteem
Put simply, if we’re constantly raising the bar for ourselves and feeling like we’re falling short, there’s going to be a significant negative impact on our mental and physical health, and our association with work.
Types of perfectionism
The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, as created by Dr Paul Hewitt and Dr Gordon Flett, describes three types of perfectionism.
1) Self-oriented perfectionist
As the name suggests, a self-oriented perfectionist sets very high standards for themselves.
This applies to both their personal life and career, and common traits include conscientiousness and attention to detail – generally, a self-oriented perfectionist is what most people will think of when they hear the word ‘perfectionist’.
In the workplace, this type of perfectionism is associated with high achievers that are often very successful.
In fact, this type of perfectionism can be overlooked in the workplace due to its correlation with what can look like greater productivity, motivation, and a sense of responsibility from the employee.
However, this employee is likely to be very critical of themselves and struggle to complete tasks in a timely fashion or without added stress due to an obsessiveness about getting every single detail correct.
2) Socially prescribed perfectionists
Unlike a self-oriented perfectionist, a socially prescribed perfectionist feels pressure to reach standards in order to be seen in a certain way by society.
This could be rooted in pressure from family, friends, academic environment, or the workplace – a socially prescribed perfectionist’s self-esteem is tied to how well they can portray themselves to others.
In the workplace, socially prescribed perfectionists will try very hard not to let others down in an attempt to meet their expectations (even if these expectations are unreasonable).
Most notably, socially prescribed perfectionists will struggle frequently with self-comparison and will often struggle with living up to the success they perceive in others.
3) Other-oriented perfectionists
(We’re only joking… kind of.)
Unlike self-oriented perfectionists, other-oriented perfectionists direct their high standards toward others.
This type of perfectionism can often display as rather judgemental or hypercritical due to the high standards that are being set.
In the workplace, other-oriented perfectionists will rarely delegate tasks to others due to their perception that only they can complete the work to the highest standard.
Consequently, this type of perfectionist can be involved in a lot of workplace conflict due to their frustration at others not striving for their full potential, or if mistakes are made.
Why does this matter?
Many of us probably relate to a lot of the symptoms of perfectionism but haven’t even been aware of it.
With platforms such as LinkedIn and Instagram only further glamorising lifestyles and careers that are unobtainable for many, the self-comparison that is such a core component of perfectionism will only continue to prevail.
Perfectionism is also correlated with burnout due to the higher levels of neuroticism observed in perfectionists, which can lead to physical health complications in the long term.
Striving for high standards in work and reaching goals are important parts of working, but when this becomes perfectionism, this often leads to negative outcomes for the individual and the business at large.
How can you combat perfectionism in the workplace?
Reducing or preventing perfectionism can boil down to striking the perfect (oops) balance between what is considered success and the necessity for perfection.
In other words, rather than setting goals that aren’t achievable or putting unnecessary pressure on employees to relentlessly triple-check everything – it’s better to start imperfectly than delay in pursuit of something unobtainable.
Being able to spot the types of perfectionism at play in the workplace can give a pretty good indication of why potential conflicts and issues are arising, which is why it’s important to adjust the workplace culture to avoid perpetuating further perfectionism.
Oh, and celebrate those wins, whether big or small – it can go a long way in making sure that employees are spending more time feeling valued and less time comparing themselves to others.