By Bart Magee, Ph.D.

Perfectionism is on the rise in society and in the workplace, meaning that business leaders need to be more prepared to manage employees with perfectionist attributes. An excess of perfectionism in the workplace leads to a number of negative results including poisonous stress and anxiety, difficulty building teams, avoidance of feedback, indecision, employee dissatisfaction and burnout. Fortunately, there are a number of effective strategies that organizations can adopt to address the challenge. 

An important study published recently documents the rise in perfectionism among young adults over the past three decades.  The study, authored by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill and published in a major psychology journal, analyzed the responses from 41,641 college students on a psychological measure called the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. The measure has been given to students across several decades in the US, Canada, and the UK, providing the researchers with a robust, longitudinal sample. The scale’s three dimensions of perfectionism are: 1) Self-oriented perfectionism: striving to attain perfection and avoid failure, 2) Socially-prescribed perfectionism: perceiving excessive and unfair demands of perfection from parents, peers and the social world, and 3) Other-oriented perfectionism: setting unrealistic standards for others and treating them with hostility and distain when they fail to meet them. The results were dramatic. Between 1989 and 2016, self-oriented perfectionism scores increased by 10 percent, other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16 percent, and socially-prescribed perfectionism increased by an incredible 32 percent.  This last finding is the most worrisome one as socially-prescribed perfection is the most debilitating of the three and is associated with greater increases in major mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior. These dramatic results are a challenge social scientists and mental health providers to address a growing social problem. The findings should also be a wake-up call to business leaders and human resource professionals, as they point to the need to adaptively respond to the new cohort of perfectionist employees now entering the American workforce.

What does this mean for the workplace? First of all, it means it’s time to dispense with the widely held myth that there are good and bad sides to perfectionism.  For too long, business leaders have tried to have it both ways. They have attempted to nurture the “good” qualities of perfectionism (high-achievement orientation, attention to detail and self-motivation) while tempering the bad ones (anxiety, black and white thinking, difficulty with feedback, avoidance of risk). Businesses do this by setting high expectations for employee performance, constantly monitoring and measuring them, and providing them incentives and reprimands. These are coupled with workplace practices supporting employee self-care, team work and development of soft skills.  But every employee knows which standard comes first and the perfectionist’s response to soft support is to assume they are not serious at best, a trap at worst. As a client of mine recently told me upon hearing that her employer was changing to an “unlimited” vacation polity, “I guess that’s the end of my ever taking a vacation.” As long as perfectionism is buoyed by workplace culture no amount of counter supports can temper it.

Assuming there are “good” sides to perfectionism also presupposes that you can’t be a high-achiever without perfectionist qualities. In fact the research shows that the opposite is the case. High achievers possess qualities that are mostly absent from the perfectionist mindset. Truly high achievers are decisive, confident, not afraid of risk, seek feedback, don’t avoid problems or difficult conversations, can easily delegate, and enjoy mentoring others. Perfectionists work hard to look confident, but underneath are driven by fear of failure which is why they often have difficulty making decisions and shy from risks. Feedback isn’t something sought after, as recognizing one’s shortcomings, for them, isn’t an opportunity growth, but a source of shame. And the anxious focus on one’s performance above all else leaves little room to address the needs of others, hindering one’s ability to effectively supervise, delegate and mentor. 

The second important take-away from the study is that given the rising perfectionism among the younger generations, workplaces need to change the way they manage employees, set performance expectations and give feedback, as common practices easily exacerbate the problem and lead to decreased performance, burnout, and mental health problems.

What are some workplace practices that can temper perfectionism and promote a healthier orientation toward performance and achievement?

  1. Reasonable goal setting. A good place to start would be to use the SMART goals guideline. The SMART mnemonic stands for Specific/Significant, Measurable/Meaningful, Achievable/Actionable and Timebound/Trackable. Not only does this model have empirical support, but it can help keep goals realistic and grounded in reality. Recording and tracking progress is a good counterbalance to the perfectionist tendency to seeing a never-ending horizon of impossible-to-meet expectations.
  2. Model learning from failure and experience. This one can be one of the most difficult changes for organizations to implement. While there is considerable evidence that recognition of one’s limits builds learning and growth, it’s hard to shake the feelings learned in childhood that failure is bad, shameful, should be avoided, and quickly forgotten. To change this, organizations need to create a sense of safety around mistakes and an environment where leaders model their own failings, where coming up short is recognized as part of the process of testing out new ideas and inevitable in a world where some variables remain out of control. Rather than reacting to failure as with a “whose to blame?” attitude, the response should be one of curiosity: “What happened?” “What can we learn?” This can help address the perfectionist’s avoidance of risk and difficulty with decision-making.
  3. Create a collaborative environment. A team-based culture can go a long way toward diluting the overly self-focused mindset of the perfectionist. Effective teams, 1) share common goals, 2) act in concert, 3) depend on one another for results, 4) achieve more together than they would individually, 5) see the team as a primary source of commitment, and 6) account for performance collectively. 
  4. Recognize employees’ need for emotional support and an environment that is not unduly stressful. This means a real commitment to emotional well-being and minding workplace culture. Once again, there is ample evidence that the best performance comes from an optimal state of engagement that is focused and motivated to reach personal and professional goals, but is free of stresses caused by work overload, lack of control, lack of real feedback and reward, a breakdown in community, an absence of fairness, and conflicting values (Maslach, 1997). In other words, the work environment matters and can mean the difference between employees who are engaged, growth-oriented, and collaborative and ones who are overly self-focused, anxious and difficult to manage. 

The team at DILAN Consulting Group has extensive experience helping organizations develop themselves utilizing effective models and strategies to transform workplace cultures, enhance leadership skills and build effective teams.  A guiding principle of our work is that effective organizations are cohesive, flexible and responsive to both internal and external demands. Organizations that work to respond to internal human needs and manage change effectively are also best at adapting to evolving markets and dynamic business environments. The many challenges around perfectionism are just the kind of internal demands that if effectively addressed will result in a more resilient, responsive and ultimately successful business.