What’s Wrong With Perfectionism?

During a recent coaching call with a corporate executive, I asked about her planning and organizational skills. She responded, “My skills are fine but never quite good enough.” When I asked about her people-development initiatives, she replied, “I can always do better in that area.” Finally, I asked about her communication skills. “That is always an area of opportunity for me to continually improve,” she said.

I started to suspect that I was working with an extreme perfectionist. When I asked her about that, she said, “Maybe, but if you were to look up what it means to be a ‘textbook perfectionist,’ I wouldn’t meet all of the requirements.”

Typically, perfectionism is viewed as a “faux-fault” in an interview environment. It’s the canned response when you must identify a professional “weakness.” It’s a self-protective trait to mention because it’s often harmless, even beneficial, in a workplace. Right?

More vice than virtue

A high-level executive recently told me he once believed perfectionists were valuable employees — until he had to manage one. “Then I realized that perfectionism is much more of a vice than a virtue,” he said.

Most of us have some amount of perfectionism. We are inspired by the perfectionistic drive of athletic champions and outstanding business leaders. But we need to recognize the difference between a desire to excel and an insatiable need to be perfect. Perfectionism becomes a vice or a “derailer” for effective work performance when it becomes maladaptive.

“These are people that need to be the best at everything, and if they make a mistake, it’s a crisis,” wrote New York Times contributor Alina Tugend. “It is also not just about how they perceive themselves, but how others perceive them: they believe they will lose the respect of friends and colleagues if they fail. They have to hit all their marks all the time.”

Maladaptive perfectionism in the workplace

Based on research conducted by psychologists Paul Hewitt, PhD and Gordon Flett, PhD, maladaptive perfectionism surfaces in unique behaviors that could pose a problem in the workplace:

  • First, perfectionists feel the need to advertise their perfection and criticize those they perceive lack their high personal standards.
  • Second, they avoid situations where perfection isn’t possible, and this results in chronic procrastination.
  • Third, they often hide or fail to disclose situations where they have been imperfect, concealing errors that may not be discovered until it’s too late to fix them.

All three coping strategies used by extreme perfectionists can undermine a company’s  productivity and staff cohesion. By recognizing these tendencies of perfectionists, managers can counteract these potential problem areas in the workplace.

7 behaviors of extreme perfectionists

Extreme perfectionists often reveal one (or more) of seven behaviors:

1. They set extreme and impossibly high expectations for themselves — Extreme perfectionists are often haunted people. They are consumed by a belief that their work is not quite measuring up, and they are not working hard enough to meet their personal expectations.

2. They are highly critical, especially of themselves — Perfectionists often feel on the brink of failing, and they agonize over past mistakes and perceived failures. They feel they can’t reach a high enough level of achievement and, when they do make a mistake, they magnify that mistake into abject failure. They have great difficulty letting go of this negative self-perception.

3. They often are very defensive and believe that most (if not all) forms of feedback are critical — In the mind of an extreme perfectionist, what may start out as a benign evaluation by a supervisor can easily morph into a perceived personal attack. “In an effort to preserve their fragile self-image and the way they appear to others, a perfectionist tries to take control by defending themselves against any threat — even when no defense is needed,” writes Carolyn Gregoire.

4. They are often workaholics and cannot accept less than perfect results — They believe that their perfectionism is giving them a competitive edge. If they let go and just be human, they believe they will lose that advantage in the workplace.

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5. A perfectionist’s intense fear of failure overrides the belief in an ability to succeed — Perfectionists are convinced that others won’t accept them if they are not perfect, and this fear of others’ disapproval or rejection is coupled with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness about failure. The self-overwhelming cycle of extreme perfectionism comes from a belief that “the better I do, the better I’m expected to do,” according to Robert Leahy, PhD, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.

6. They often will agonize over past experiences of failure or unfulfilled expectations — Past mistakes and disappointing results haunt perfectionists. This preoccupation with what should have been makes it difficult for perfectionists to move on from past mistakes and acknowledge recent successes.

 7. They often have difficulty managing stresses related to their excessively great expectations — Perfectionists are not happy, even when they achieve “success,” because nothing is ever completely perfect. “I think the reason for that is that socially prescribed perfectionism has an element of pressure combined with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness,” says Gordon Flett.

How to help perfectionists

Once extreme perfectionism is recognized as maladaptive, the question becomes whether it can be mitigated or productively managed. Many experts believe it can. “I work more on the precursors of perfection — the need to be accepted, to be cared for,” said Hewitt, who frequently treats perfectionists. “Those interpersonal needs are what drive the perfectionistic behavior.”

Robert Leahy suggests that perfectionists should practice being imperfect. They need to take to heart the familiar expression, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough.

Dr. Leahy counsels perfectionists, “Take a day and do everything imperfectly — but well. This is what I call ‘successful imperfectionism.’ Practicing imperfectionism can help you realize that the world doesn’t end when things aren’t perfect. It also tells you that you were the only one who was watching.”

It is possible to become a recovering perfectionist. Recovery relies on perfectionists allowing themselves permission to make and accept mistakes which, though not perfect, are still good enough. By accepting their imperfection (i.e., their humanness) perfectionists can move on without agonizing over past mistakes, and they can feel hopeful and deserving of future success, defined now as being “good enough.”

The workplace needs people who push themselves to achieve high standards — with healthy self-perceptions that recognize the detrimental effects of maladaptive perfectionism.

Marcy Fetzer is a principal consultant for DecisionWise where she is responsible for leading a consulting team. She brings a unique skill set to DecisionWise, which includes her ability to address complex organizational situations and interpersonal interactions in order to identify creative solutions for her clients. She specializes in organizational development, human behavior, conflict management strategies, business communication and interpersonal relationships. 

Marcy completed a PhD from the University of Utah. Her doctoral work focused on the effect of dysfunctional communication and transformative conflict mediation within traditional organizational frameworks. Marcy also completed a B.A. and M.A. in Organizational Communication, specializing in Organizational Conflict Studies from the University of Utah. 

Currently, Marcy is a full-time faculty member at the Department of Organizational Leadership and Strategy in the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University. She teaches courses on organizational effectiveness, organizational behavior and human resources, and management communication.

Marcy is a certified 360-degree assessment coach. Overall, Marcy’s consulting work and leadership coaching has spanned most of the states within the United States, and internationally in Canada, the U.K., Australia, Japan, and Bulgaria. Notably, Marcy continues to serve as the primary consultant for the U.S. Federal District Court for the District of Utah.