Perfectionism is it a blessing or a curse?

Written by
Mark Winwood

24 Aug 2017

24 Aug 2017 • by Mark Winwood

Striving for perfection (and settling for nothing less) may, at first, seem a laudable attitude and recipe for success.

But there is a serious side to unfettered perfectionism that can prove to be an incapacitating burden for those it affects. Indeed, such individuals can be so prone to procrastination and distressed by debilitating thoughts of the need to ‘get it right’ that they delay or even fail to get started undertaking tasks – behaviours that can have a knock-on effect on employees who try to deal with their indecision or cover for them.

Unchecked perfectionism can pose a significant threat to the performance and productivity of any organisation so it goes without saying that business leaders would be wise to ensure that those responsible for people management in their company are equipped both to identify and to offer suitable advice and support to employees affected by it.

What is perfectionism?

Psychologists categorise perfectionism into two types – adaptive and maladaptive.

Adaptive perfectionism is characterised by an ability to be flexible and is associated with qualities such as tolerance, helpfulness and usefulness. In a workplace context, employees will evidence this by taking care and paying attention to detail to be precise in their work. Most importantly, they’ll know when it’s the time is right to finish a task and move on, thereby avoiding excessive, unproductive effort.

Maladaptive perfectionism on the other hand is characterised by more rigid behaviour that can hinder or stop an individual from accepting that less than 100% can be good enough. Behaviours can include individuals pushing themselves to the limit, failing to delegate (a significant impediment to effective line management) and missing deadlines, as a compulsion to persist with tasks until they can’t be bettered prevails. 

Maladaptive perfectionists commonly experience feelings of distress and hopelessness. They tend to catastrophise situations and often believe that failing at one part of a task equates to total failure.

While this can be both upsetting and demoralising for any employee, if the trait is manifested in a member of your business’ leadership team or senior management, it can set an unwelcome precedent for the organisation.

Signs of maladaptive perfectionism

  • Nothing short of excellence – maladaptive perfectionists are rarely satisfied with anything but what they think is the best. This can apply both to their own work and to that of others. 
  • Error terror – no-one likes to fail but for perfectionists such as these fear of getting it wrong can grow to such an extent it leads to high levels of anxiety, discomfort and distress.
  • Avoidance and procrastination – perfectionists persistently baulk at beginning tasks, typically becoming bogged down in over-thinking what’s going to be needed for the perfect outcome. To avoid the prospect of failure, they may even give up on getting started altogether. 
  • Over reaction – perfectionists tend to react negatively to any setback – no matter how small – and think of it as a failure.
  • Fearful feedback – perfectionists often respond poorly to feedback, seemingly unable to take on board the positive aspects of constructive criticism and dwelling painfully instead on their shortcomings.
  • Control – ‘If you want it done right, do it yourself’ is typically the perfectionist’s call. They can, for example, struggle to delegate even the smallest of tasks and, consequently, fall in to the frustrating and ultimately futile trap of micromanagement.

Helping perfectionists to be more productive

You may find the following tips helpful for helping perfectionists in your team cope with the trait and work more effectively:
  • Redefine success – maladaptive perfectionists can find it hard to finish a task when they think it’s not perfect. Help them to overcome this conviction by reassuring them that, by and large, good work is good enough for a success in your organisation. 
  • Perspective is key – not all tasks are of equal importance. Nor do they require the same degree or intensity of effort. So help employees affected by perfectionism to prioritise their workload and then focus their energies on investing an appropriate amount of time to dealing with each of them in turn.
  • One step at a time – to overcome procrastination, help them to break down tasks into discrete, more manageable parts, which, when accomplished, should boost their sense of achievement and morale and give them confidence to move on to the next. 
  • Share the load – reassure them that no-one can be expected to do everything. That’s why teamwork is so critical to any organisation’s success. For managers with a perfectionist trait, take time to discuss with them how to get the best from their team by identifying and making the most of its members’ strengths and abilities, and then pulling together to share the load – and the success. 
  • Feed back with care – reassure them you’re there both to help them to build on their strengths as well as to cope with their weaknesses so they can grow, develop and be more effective in their work. Positive, constructive dialogue is key so encourage them to engage with you and to ask questions to make the most of this opportunity.