The Dangers of Perfectionism

By Kelley Whitney

Perfection does not exist.

It’s one of those phrases you hear when someone’s trying to self-motivate yet remain realistic in a personal context, but the words have significant meaning for those in the workplace as well.

Some might say, “Oh, I want perfectionists on my team. They’re great with details, won’t miss deadlines, and the quality of their work will be excellent.”

But that may actually be far from the truth for one simple reason: Perfectionism, when taken to the extreme, can inhibit all of those things because it distracts from the work at hand.

Jane Bluestein, president and CEO of Instructional Support Services Inc. and author of “The Perfection Deception,” said a perfectionist is more likely not to admit mistakes or to ask for help, neither of which is conducive to learning or to high performance. Further, perfectionism can manifest in a tendency to procrastinate or in a sharp focus on details with a limited view of the major pieces or big picture in a project or task.

“They tend to miss deadlines, or they never finish things because they’re always improving it,” she said. “Something may look really nice — they spend hours formatting it — but the content is really weak because they’re focused on the wrong thing.”

At the top of the house, perfectionist leaders tend to overextend themselves, taking on more than is realistically possible to achieve because they’re afraid to say no. They fear a loss of credibility, status as ‘can do’ person, or even a bonus or some other reward.

Someone with these tendencies in a development scenario might be easily distracted by the wrong things, depending on how the material is presented. Bluestein said when learning content is too hard and participants feel they don’t have the necessary ability to absorb the information, they’ll panic. “When we’re in panic mode, we don’t do well in learning anything,” she said.

If there are time constraints and the learner is pushed to learn something faster than they can digest the information, if the material is under challenging or if there is pressure to perform without making a mistake, all of these scenarios trigger stress that inhibit a perfectionist’s ability to learn.

Bluestein also pointed out the perils in working for a manager or leader with perfectionist tendencies. It’s often extremely difficult to please such people, and senior leaders may notice a high level of turnover in the employees under them. They may issue one set of instructions, and when the task is completed, they express dissatisfaction or disappointment because now they want something completely different. Or “there’s one typo, and that’s all I hear about,” Bluestein said. “That puts a lot of stress and anxiety on me, the employee, and when I’m under stress, my cerebral capacity is diminished.”

This can result in absenteeism, quitting and wasted training investments when talented employees opt to take their skills elsewhere because the work environment under a perfectionist regime is not supportive.

Good leaders want employees who cross the T’s and dot the I’s, and they don’t want to stress out or drain away discretionary effort and engagement via a crappy work environment. To get that, Bluestein said managers have to be clear about their expectations for work projects. “A lot of times, we have these unexpressed expectations or the idea that ‘they should know.’ And even though you may be correct, maybe they should know. Tell them anyhow. We need to let people know up front what is important to us. Otherwise we work in a vacuum.”

It’s also important to provide the kind of work climate where it’s OK for someone to do something wrong and ask for help without fear of reprisal. “A lot of it is about how we communicate what we need and what we want,” Bluestein said.

Essentially, curtailing the downsides of perfectionism is about examining behaviors closely, appreciating what people are doing right and helping to steer them appropriately when they go wrong.  Also, Bluestein said to never, ever underestimate the power of encouragement. A lot of perfectionist behavior is related to an individuals’ belief system. For example, someone may believe their self-worth is attached to their ability to make top sales or to execute some other work task. If they fall short, without the right support, problems will be magnified and productivity and confidence may suffer.

That said, Bluestein said sometimes problems with perfectionism may be rooted in behaviors and systems that are outside the leaders’ scope of responsibility or ability to handle. Extreme perfectionism is actually a mental health issue  If someone is wrapped up in a self-worth equals achievement equals self-worth kind of equation and suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety on the job, it might be best to refer the individual to an organization’s employee assistance program.

Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer

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