The mental toll of perffectionism

Published on Dec 1, 2021

by Dr. Duck

Nobody’s perfect. In fact, striving for perfection is a good sign you are an imperfect person—called a ‘perfectionist’. It’s one of those back-handed compliments that means you strive for the best but maybe you are just too obsessed and uptight.

Even my autocorrect is a perfectionist. It tried to ‘correct’ the misspelling in the title. I wonder how many people who saw the title also felt that shiver of disgust seeing the incorrect spelling?

You might also be one of those people who hates to see rhetorical questions, right?

Perhaps you hate one sentence paragraphs; or the misuse of a semi-colon?

Even though we have so many tools that are designed to pick up on imperfection, such as the ‘undo’ button, spell check, review functions in a document, audits, reviews, etc., the company line (at least at most companies) is ‘we all make mistakes’, ‘nobody’s perfect’ and ‘you’re only human’.

Even in workplace policies and practices, it is often the case that we explore the systemic factors of individual errors and failures—recognising that there’s more to our performance than sheer willpower.

That is, we keep telling ourselves and others that we do not want perfection! We expect you to make mistakes. We welcome all the problems you will add to the already troubled brows with open arms and kindness.

Right;?

I once worked with a team where the leader would often follow the mantra of encouraging experimentation, fail fast, and bypassing red tape to get results. But on an occasion where an employee did just that, he was reprimanded. ‘He f###ed up’, he said.

I’ve seen this time and time again. We want people to take risks and innovate but won’t commit completely. It’s the equivalent of wanting all the innovation and no risk or wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

Yet another time I remember staying back well into the night with a colleague who was intent of redrafting each sentence of a report over and over until they were certain it was ‘perfect’ to be circulated for review. They weren’t prepared to take any risk and thought that careful crafting of each sentence would save them from an angry mob of reviewers. Of course, what ended up happening was that even those carefully crafted sentences were deconstructed and destroyed by the reviewers.

Why do we seek perfection?

Researchers propose that we can apply perfectionism to ourselves—that is, we expect unrealistic standards about ourselves—as well as others. The standards we apply to others is what we expect of them.

This high standard relates to very high levels of conscientiousness, which is a trait that describes dutifulness and is a fairly high predictor of workplace performance. That’s why we often seek a conscientious person to help us. We can rely and depend on them.

Conscientious people, in particular, hate letting you down and they especially hate letting themselves down. This means when things go wrong, they feel it in their conscientious bones. Anxiety, depression, frustration.

However, being conscientious means different things to different people. For one person, a high level of precision and detail is not perfectionism. It’s being professional.

To another, delivering a product that provides high value and ingenuity is close to perfect even if it has some flaws.

Ultimately, we all want to do a great job but the standard we work towards changes in any given context.

Striving for perfection makes us miserable

In a logical, rational world, the search for perfection sounds like a utopia. Why wouldn’t we want everything to be as good as it could be?

In the real world, however, expecting true perfection is not only frustrating for those around you, it is also likely to make you miserable when ‘good enough’ will do.
Perfectionism at work can lead to unrealistic goals in unrealistic timeframes. We can essentially set ourselves and others up to fail and then get annoyed when the inevitable failure occurs.

Perfectionism at work can lead to over analysis and introspection. A goal may indeed be reached and of a high standard but if not as perfect as we’d like, we focus on those anomalies. Perhaps you received some great feedback from all but one person and you chose to dwell on what they said?

Perhaps you have a track record of excellent performance but decide it’s all been rather pointless when you stuff something up? A perfectionist who caves into that packet of biscuits might just eat the whole thing because they’ve already missed their ‘clean eating’ goal for the day.

Perfectionism at work can lead to you endlessly updating and making changes to someone’s work. This reduces their confidence, autonomy, and can lead to both parties feeling frustrated.

Perfectionism at work can lead to you missing the forest from the trees. A leader, manager or client may be so focussed on correcting others, that you run the risk of creating an unpleasant culture that subsequently leads to more underperformance.

Lastly, perfectionism at work can be a lot of wasted energy and attention when you could be investing in something much more important, like your family, health, or coming up with new, creative ideas that will really make the difference.

Here are some questions you can ask to check if you are being realistic or perfectionistic.

Is it value-adding or just a personal preference?

We all have different personal and professional standards. We sometimes need to admit to ourselves that some standards are all in our minds. Some individuals like to put two spaces after a full point. This might be a fairly minor personal preference but it’s unlikely to be a formatting ‘hill to die on’.

In contrast, a published novel with spelling errors and missing pages would undermine the quality of a book. This is not really a preference but an assumed level of quality that anyone would expect.

Are expectations aligned?

When setting a standard for others or when someone sets a standard for your own work, ensure you are aligned. I have a colleague who is really clear with clients about what they will do on a contract. He’ll say ‘so, when I send it through, it will be a spreadsheet’. I stupidly called a spreadsheet a ‘database of knowledge’ and the client was puzzled as to why they just received a spreadsheet with data. My client wasn’t being a perfectionist. I’d just set a much higher expectation!

Am I capable? Are they capable?

Many times, we set goals for ourselves and others that are not achieved at the level we want to see. This can be because the person completing the task is simply not experienced or skilled enough.

When I was a tutor, I once tried to motivate a student who had been producing a standard ‘Credit’ level on their lab reports. I wrote ‘I know you can do much better’. She came to speak to me and said ‘I know you think I can do much better but this is actually the best I can do!’. My message didn’t motivate them. It stressed them out because they wanted more help.

When we review the work of others, we sometimes forget that individuals can be working at their maximum effort and still not reach the heights we expect from them. We can also expect more from ourselves at times where we need more experience, advice and support. I’ve often worked with younger colleagues who avoided seeking help because they thought they should be able to figure something out on their own. When in doubt, it’s always ok to ask for more help.

Do you know what’s really going on?

I’ve heard many stories about other people being not capable or willing to work at the required standard. When I’ve had the chance to learn more, it’s almost never a one-sided issue. When someone is not living up to the expected standard, you also need to consider whether they had the time, support, feedback, and direction that they also need.

In this situation, the person observing the work isn’t being a perfectionist and the person delivering it isn’t underperforming. It’s just a bad set-up where everyone expected a better outcome. Sometimes it’s easier to blame a person rather than peel back and examine the systemic issues that led to them missing the mark.

Are you going to ruin it?

The most common issue I see is perpetual evolution of a simple idea. This can occur through seeking feedback endlessly or constant upgrading of the original idea into something that’s now become complex. Perfectionism can paradoxically lead to constant updating and changing a good idea and so it’s always worth stopping to assess whether something has met its intent before further evolution.

What’s the mood in the room?

A great sign that you are setting unrealistic expectations for yourself is how you feel. If you are endlessly working, feeling lethargic, overwhelmed, or perhaps started procrastinating—because you know whatever you do, it won’t be ‘perfect’—then this is feedback that your approach is incorrect. It’s worth checking in whether you’ve set a higher standard than what’s needed.

Similarly, when setting goals for others, you can also read their body language or even direct feedback to gauge whether it’s time to close off the task and move onto the next…

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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