When did you last hear an interviewee say, “I’m a perfectionist” in response to the question “What's your greatest weakness?” Many people use the term perfectionism to imply something positive and valuable, yet is that really the case? Candidates may claim perfectionism as a positive weakness, yet psychologists recognise the detrimental effects of perfectionism on employee wellbeing.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is defined as an individual trait that drives a person to propel for perfection in everything they attempt. On the surface this could imply that people should all aspire to be more like this, and a trait that organisations should actively seek out. Perfectionism however goes hand in hand with self-doubt, anxiety and depression. So, what is it about perfectionism that can result in such a negative impact on individuals, yet deliver high standards of work for their employers? In this article we will explore the components of perfectionism and its potentially adverse consequences on the individual and organisation. We will also offer some initial advice for individuals and organisations to manage this effectively.
Personality, perfectionism and stress
Personality is known to be a function of the experience of stress. For example, different combinations of the ‘Big Five’ personality traits of Extraversion, Conscientiousness and Neuroticism indicate different stress coping styles, with the most effective including a combination of high Conscientiousness and low Neuroticism.1
Some psychologists similarly regard perfectionism as a personality attribute characterised by striving for flawlessness and the setting of excessively high standards for performance, accompanied by tendencies for overly critical self-evaluation. The perfectionism trait is easily stimulated in the workplace and has been purported to contribute to many individuals’ experience of, and response to, stress. It is the characteristics of perfectionism that have led to the exploration of how perfectionism may impact an individual’s wellbeing, especially in the workplace.
Particular research into perfectionism and wellbeing has considered both adaptive and maladaptive variations of the condition, a useful distinction when seeking to understand the impact on wellbeing. Maladaptive perfectionism is the endless obsession with getting something perfect. This translates into poring over tasks, overthinking and seeking to uphold excessively high standards. For a maladaptive perfectionist they are unlikely to be satisfied even when achieving their original goals. Whereas adaptive perfectionists may strive to achieve high standards, but do not continue to worry and ruminate about the task and mostly get peace of mind when a piece of work concludes.
Maladaptive perfectionism has a negative impact on wellbeing in the workplace, made worse by the tendency to carry those worries into leisure time. This prolongs stress and it increases the risk of burnout or the development of other conditions that further impact wellbeing. Not only does perfectionism increase the anticipation of stressful events, the likelihood of the occurrence of stressful events, but also the evaluation of stress in these events.2
Characteristics of maladaptive perfectionism
Maladaptive perfectionism has been categorised by several common features.3 These are:
Doubts about your actions
Concern over mistakes
High personal standards
Parental expectations and criticisms
If you experience several of these symptoms, then you may well be a perfectionist. You may also recognise some of these symptoms within one of your team members or in a colleague. Typically, a perfectionist not only sets extremely high standards for themselves, resulting in tasks taking longer than required whilst they ensure this standard is met. This is then complemented with doubts about the actions they are taking, concern and worry over mistakes they may have made or will make in the future. On top of this, many perfectionists also fear they will not meet the high standards and levels of achievement that their parents and other family members set for them, or fear criticism from family members for a job badly done in the workplace.
A maladaptive perfectionist’s preoccupation with their sense of failure, which is directed and attributed to themselves, disables their ability to engage in active and useful coping, such as a problem-focused approach, instead moving into a state of helplessness. Taking all of those factors, or even some, into consideration, it might not be that surprising to you that a perfectionist may be more susceptible to workplace stress and poor wellbeing.
How can you alleviate the effects of perfectionism on your own wellbeing?
When it comes to personality, it proves very difficult to change. You may adapt your behaviour and work outside of your natural preference, but ultimately it takes energy to ‘go against the grain’. And, regardless of this, at times of heightened pressure, the underlying trait will show through.
Interestingly, maladaptive perfectionism doesn’t seem to indicate a higher experience of stress, rather it is associated with that individual’s reaction and coping strategy when handling a stressful event. For this very reason, help comes in the form of managing this tendency and finding ways to alleviate the stress it may cause, rather than attempting to cure the perfectionism itself.
On a personal level, should you wish to alleviate the stresses caused by your own perfectionist traits, you could consider:
1. Spending time socialising with friends and family
Building and maintaining relationships with people you trust, is an excellent way to mitigate stress.
Learning the discipline of reflection, introspection and being in the present helps to put thoughts and feelings into perspective and avoid non-stop thinking about past imperfections and future anxiety about achieving perfection in a task.
The perfect way to ‘burn off’ stresses and rebalance your physiology.
Creating an action plan for the next day of work, with practice helps you to leave work related worries at your desk where they belong and out of your leisure time.
At an organisational level, you could consider the following:
1. Primary action
Designing organisation structures and individual job roles in a way to minimise individual risks to wellbeing, for example, that no one should carry out an ‘impossible task’.
2. Clear responsibilities
Managers should set clear expectations with team members, and ensure they have the resources needed to deliver results.
3. Collaborative leadership
Managers should encourage collaboration among team members, and consider the collective assignment of team goals.
An effective manager provides regular and constructive feedback, coaching and support.
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