To be or not to be perfectionist
Recently, I was collecting my younger son from an afternoon club, and I witnessed a little girl, around 5 or 6 years old, bursting into tears when she received her scored test paper. On a brief outlook of the situation, I was led to believe that she failed. However, glimpsing at the front page of the paper, I saw a written mark — 38 points out of 39 possible, almost 100%.
After her mother’s attempts to calm her daughter down, the activity leader reached into her pocket, pulling out precious ‘congratulations’ stickers (for those who only score full marks). The moment that crisp sticker touched her jacket, the wailing stopped, and it made me reflect about the nature of perfectionism. One thing that this moment had made very apparent to me was that it is important to not exaggerate about the impact of small minor errors and setbacks. Rather, it is important to focus on rewards which relate to how the task at hand is part of the bigger picture. This is a skill which I believe most perfectionists need to work on developing.
WHY I SN’T EVERYONE A PERFECTIONIST?
The origins of perfectionism are still subject to much research1. At this stage we can only speculate regarding the causes of perfectionism, based on what we know about personality, as a combination of inherited traits (genetics) and a potential influence of environment (learned behaviors). To illustrate this, in the story of this little girl we do not know, to what extent her family, unintentionally may have been reinforcing her natural perfectionist tendencies either by criticizing her for minor mistakes or rewarding her only when receiving an absolute minimum of 100%.
We do know that learning experiences affect some people more than the others, and as much, are only partly responsible for perfectionists attitudes. Some people seem not to be affected by this. The English dictionary defines perfectionism as «a tendency to set rigid high standards of personal performance»2. Perfectionists’ personal standards, attitude or philosophy demand highest possible standards of achievement, rejecting anything less. On a surface, this seem to be admirable characteristic. Some perfectionists are pre-dispositioned to be A* (top) students to their parents and teachers delight. In the workplace, they have a reputation of hard working, high potentials, who always deliver on time with the highest possible result. So from an organisational and business results perspective, perfectionists could be the answer to creating our dream teams. Or couldn’t they?
WHAT COULD BE THE DOWNSIDE?
Not all perfectionists have the same characteristics. Perfectionism can manifest itself through different behaviours and multiple dimensions. These were defined by two independent research teams: Hewit and Flett (Team 1) and Frost and colleagues (Team 2) respectively. For the purpose of this article we will focus on Hewit and Flett’s classification, which specify three types of perfectionism: Self-Oriented, Other-Oriented and Socially- Prescribed. So, what is the difference between these three types and how this can be visible in the workplace. «Self-Oriented Perfectionists», have selfimposed unrealistically high standards of work, which in many cases are impossible to attain. They also may have a tendency to be highly critical of themselves if they do not meet their self-imposed standards, and tend to be their own fierced judges of performance.
We may sometimes refer to them as overambitious individuals, who always «set the bar high» for their own goals and performance. In practice, they may, for example. Always strive for perfection by overinvesting time and resources in «finishing touches» — final details which are «nice to have» but in reality unnecessary. Sometimes this may lead to procrastination and stretching of deadlines as the finished product may never seem to be good enough, as there is always room for improvement. Sometimes, even the thought of starting the project may seem daunting, as perfect complexity of the final outcome may cause apprehension and overshadow initial planning stage. Clinical research suggests that this type of perfectionism may be a cause of daily stress and in severe cases even depression3. Based on a practical experience and observations in occupational setting, undeveloped self-oriented perfectionists may struggle in the work place with work-life balance, especially when being responsible for more than one task or a complex project. To their managers delight, they are very reliable members of staff who will always deliver to the highest possible standards, and, as a result, usually are entrusted with tasks which require diligent approach or last minute recovery. So, in the absence of a result oriented performance management approach in teams, self-oriented perfectionists may fall pray to work overload, leading to work related stress or burnout.
The second type, the ‘Other-Oriented Perfectionists’, on the other hand may have a tendency to impose on other and demand them to meet unrealistically high standards.Imagine «Other-oriented» perfectionist as a manager. As someone who expects other to deliver what might be regarded by the norm as «impossible». Maybe be continuously dissapointed with standards of projects and delivery. Consequently, they may find it difficult to delegate tasks to others, fearing that nobody is good or able enough to deliver to the standards they have in mind. High expectations of others may also lead to the perception of overcritical managers, who are never satisfied, with any results or efforts. They may also be accused of favoritism (usually when delegating the task to other perfectionists in their team, who seem to guarantee some chance of standards being met). This may leave others feeling there is little point in even trying, potentially leading to disengagement, low team morale, cynicism and work related stress.
The third group, «socially-prescribed» perfectionists believe that others expect perfection of them and exaggerated results which are difficult to meet. Which may lead to internal conflict and social anxiety.
Unlike, self- oriented perfectionism, in which expectations are self-imposed, in ‘socially prescribed’ perfectionism, individuals believe that others expect excessively high standards and that they will only be accepted upon fulfillment of these standards. For example, in workplace, a perception that managers only expect flawless performance can manifest itself in fear of making mistakes, of being judged or even seeking and receiving feedback. This may lead to poor communication, lack of clarification of what needs to be achieved, resulting in role conflict, job dissatisfaction, work related stress and burnout.
So «socially prescribed» perfectionists, who believe in their manager’s excessive expectations, when briefed on the task, they may not have a balanced view of what truly is expected of them due to heuristics. If they are not courageous enough to clarify their assumed expectations, they may feel angry with the manager and demotivated before they even start. If the manager will not use the debriefing technique, which helps to clarify mutual understanding and standards of outcome, a member of staff maybe unfairly misjudging his or her expectations. Again, Socially-Prescribed perfectionism is most commonly associated with stress and burnout in the workplace. Overall, perfectionism is one personality characteristic which has been closely associated with individual differences in stress and burnout at work4.
WHEN PERFECTIONISM IS CONSTRUCTIVE
Literature describes perfectionism in two extremes, as adaptive5 (positive) and maladaptive (dysfunctional) perfectionism, which can be observed. Dysfunctional aspects of perfectionism often are visible, when individual demonstrate inflexibility in achieving high standards of work, often beyond what is expected, irrespective of the situation. The fear of failure, one of the major characteristics of dysfunctional perfectionism, may re-focus individual’s attention from creative solutions (often imperfect but insightful) to avoidance of error. «Black and white thinking» extremes — either perfect outcome or a complete failure, does not help to perform a balanced analysis of what was done well and what could be differently — a thinking which characterizes culture of learning organisations. Dysfunctional perfectionists’ sense of self-worth, depends on their performance, regardless of the situation and circumstances, which in turn may affect their selfbelief and self-esteem. On the other hand, adaptive perfectionists, who play to their perfectionists strengths strive for success and thrive on performance by having high standards which they can flexibly adapt, according to the situation. They are aware of their tendency for exceptionally high standards, they know when and what they can compromise on, without jeopardizing the quality of the overall outcome. They are aware of their own and others strengths and limitations, assigning or embarking on the tasks which are positively stretching and developing their potential. They do not determine their sense of self-worth on performance, having a balanced view of what is possible to achieve or worth investing in resources. They also compete tasks and projects on time, being aware of input versus output analysis.
Adjunct Professor in Human Resources and Organization Development. She is a chartered member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a UK based international professional body for HR and people development. She also holds a post graduate diploma in Human Resources Management from Kingston University, London. Anna has completed her Masters in Business Psychology where she researched the link between risk taking propensity and effective leadership.
1. Antony M.M. Phd; Swinson, R (1998) When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. New Harbinger Publications.
3. Hewitt, P.L., Flett G.L (1993) Dimensions of Perfectionism, Daily Stress and Depression: A test of a Specific Varnurability Hypothesis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol.102, No.1, 58-65.
4. Childs, J.H., Stoeber, J. (2012). Do you want me to be perfect? Two longitudinal studies on socially prescribed perfectionism, stress and burnout in the workplace. Work & Stress, Vol.26, No.4, 347-364.
5. Enns, M. W., & Cox, B. J. (2002). The nature and assessment of perfectionism: A critical analysis. http://dx.doi. org/10.1037/10458-002.