How to manage perfectionism in the workplace
What’s wrong with perfectionism?
There is nothing wrong with striving for excellence or doing the best you can in certain situations. When this is healthy and appropriate, you can get a real sense of achievement and satisfaction from a job well done. It links with competitiveness and spurs people on to excel and win.
Perfectionism is unhelpful and damaging when it becomes all pervasive. You drive yourself to achieve impossible standards. If you do not reach them, you feel you have failed completely. If you do reach them, you will put that down to luck, lower standards or anything that isn’t actually due to your competence. You always feel that you can do a bit better next time.
Perfectionism can spill out into all areas of life. It becomes about how you look and who you are as well as what you do. This can lead to intense anxiety, procrastination and imposter syndrome. It erodes confidence as you never feel quite good enough.
Causes and impact in the workplace
- Perfectionism is common among young people who have been high-achievers at school. Unfortunately, the education system has fuelled this with a constant emphasis on testing, key stages and exam grades. There are ever higher standards to aspire to, measure yourself against and feel inadequate if you don’t achieve them.
- The pressure to be the best, to excel at all times and to feel that being less than perfect is unacceptable can lead to a lack of resilience in the face of failure or disappointment.
- Coming into the workplace can be very daunting. New graduates might be feeling very insecure in a new environment. If you are driven by perfectionism, this could be especially stressful. You may well be terrified of getting things wrong and not being good enough. This might be especially difficult for those who are in a minority due to ethnicity, race, socio-economic position, gender, sexuality or disability.
- This can lead to intense anxiety, over-working to compensate, being afraid to ask questions, over-sensitivity and defensiveness in receiving feedback.
- It can also feed into imposter syndrome. This is where someone feels as if they are a fraud and will be found out at any moment.
- Both perfectionism and imposter syndrome are fuelled by shame which makes it very hard for people to address.
How can you manage it?
- Pay attention to the overt and covert messages you might be giving to your employees. It is important to aspire to excellence as an organisation. Yet, too much emphasis on concepts such as ‘the best talent’ and ‘world-beating’ can fuel perfectionism and performance anxiety.
- Think about your values as an organisation. Do you promote a growth culture where mistakes are genuinely seen as learning opportunities? Where collaboration is valued over competition? Where you are judged by attitude and how you approach things, rather than by results?
- Is everyone on board with your values? Are you authentic? Make sure line managers know how to translate them into action.
- Lead by example. Senior leaders owning up about the times they failed or messed up – and survived - helps employees accept that we are all human. That not being perfect all the time is not the end of the world.
- Set expectations. There will be times when complete accuracy is necessary. It is important to be clear about the distinctions and when it does and doesn’t matter.
- Think about your own perfectionism. As a manager or senior leader, you are not exempt. Do you have very high expectations for yourself? Make sure that you do not have unrealistically high expectations of others, including your young employees.
Perfectionism can lead to anxiety, depression, stress and burn-out. It is important to address perfectionism so that it does not lead to the employee developing mental health problems or exacerbating pre-existing ones.
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