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The Perils of Perfectionism

We have all heard the adage that you can have too much of a good thing. "Attention to detail" or "people-orientated" are often seen in the desirable skills and characteristics on job specifications. But what happens when attention to detail becomes an intense focus on producing perfection? Or being a people-orientated person drives an insatiable need to please others by providing perfect output?


Perfectionism, or the pressure to present an image of perfection, has undoubtedly shot up in recent times. Perfectionism can manifest in separate parts of life including parenting, body image and social pressure. Here we explore some of the negative impacts from a career perspective…



1. Missed deadlines or highly intense deadline stress

I think we would all agree that producing high quality work generally requires time and effort. Striving to produce a 100% perfect masterpiece only adds to this. Not to mention that in most circumstances there is actually no such thing, as pretty much everyone has a different perception of what constitutes a masterpiece.

Perfectionists often find themselves investing hours and hours to “get things perfect” (hello path to workplace burnout) and in the run up to deadlines the fear of sharing something short of perfection can cause adrenaline-induced panic and stress or a preference to miss a deadline completely rather than share something that “isn’t up to scratch”.


2. Procrastination or total inaction, leading to less risk taking and innovation

The fear of not knowing how to produce a “perfect” work product can lead perfectionists to kick the can of starting tasks they are unsure or unconfident about (compounding the deadline stress).


Worst case scenario the fear becomes a perfectionist paralysis, and certain assignments or tasks are not done at all. The desire to stay “safe” and not be seen to fail takes over, which can hinder perfectionists from taking risks on going for a new approach or opportunity they aren’t familiar with, being creative and innovative. Less risk taking in this context can often equate to missed opportunities for learning and personal growth.


3. Negative impact on colleagues and workplace culture

Culture is a HUGE part of why people stay or leave roles. And culture is driven largely by how those around you are operating (not whether you have a ping pong table in your office!).

Having a perfectionist boss or colleague can rub off on those around them. Others may see the presentation of “superhuman” and find this an impossible leader to aspire or connect to. Or they may observe how a perfectionist judges their own work product, thus instilling a culture where they are afraid to speak up, ask questions or share that they are unsure on how to tackle something through fear of being tarnished with the same judgement brush. Taking it in the positive alternative light, can you think of a time whereby a colleague acknowledged and spoke out about their challenges, and this made them more relatable and gave you confidence to do the same?


There is also the “lead by example” impact. If a perfectionist leader is working hours and hours to get sh*t done to perfection, juniors may feel the pressure to do the same. Who wants to be left with an exhausted, burnt out and less productive team when you as the perfectionist also feel the same?!


4. Self-disqualification for a promotion / new role

Ever read the specification for a more senior role and thought “I only meet 90% of those criteria”? The perfectionist is likely to follow this though with “so I am not ready”…this is the straight up cost of perfectionism.


5. Health and productivity implications

Studies have shown perfectionists are more likely to suffer with stress, anxiety and depression. From my own personal experience, perfectionism was definitely one of the underlying factors that lead me to workplace burnout (which is chronic, and prolonged stress).


Poor mental health impacts our productivity levels, reduces decision-making capacity and can cause use to disengage from our colleagues and work, not to mention any of the impacts outside of work and on our physical health.

 

These are just a few of the ways perfectionist tendencies can hold perfectionists back in the workplace. There are many studies that show how perfectionism hinders success and progression in sports people, business leaders, health care workers and other walks of of life.


It is a cruel oxymoron that trying to be 100% awesome in fact prevents us from reaching our full potential and being our best.

 

So what can we do about it?

As a recovering perfectionist, I know overcoming perfectionism is not as straight forward as "quick-win", practical strategies like diary blocking to only give yourself X time to complete a task to 80%. If you have ever tried this, like me, you will likely find yourself extending the diary slot until 1am or handing over a piece of work, feeling totally unsatisfied by it and not sleeping all night as you imagine all the negative adjectives your colleagues could possible use to describe your work. Nor is it about just “caring a little less” – this was the piece of advice I HATED the MOST and was given FREQUENTLY as an attempt by well-meaning colleagues.


I did not want to change the fundamental parts of my character that I valued and had helped me build my sucessful career. I value that I take pride in my work, have a great eye for detail and am driven to produce high quality and valuable outcomes for my clients and colleagues. What I did want was to achieve great things in a healthy way that leveraged my skills but didn’t sacrifice my wellbeing, leave me frazzled, stressed and in a pattern of overwork.


Overcoming perfectionism requires self-compassion and work on the internal narratives behind perfectionism.

One of the tools you can try yourself as a starting point is reframing. For example, perfectionism can drive us to focus only on the potential mistakes we might make and how these would be seen as a failure, clouding our ability to see how much learning and development value there is in having a go and making errors. Next time you are frozen in inaction or procrastinating as a result of fear, try reframing the possible outcome…Some of the most successful individuals and companies in our age have achieved this success through a pattern of trying, failing and subsequently innovating. In the words of Henry Ford “failure is the only way to begin again more intelligently”.


Or, next time you are feeling frightened about sharing a non-perfect (by your standards) piece of work, trying reframing from the perspective of those on the receiving end…how many of us have been in the scenario where someone has shared a piece of work with us that they have been “perfecting” for days, and when we see it is totally not what we had in mind? Would we have preferred to see an early, non-perfect draft for discussion and collaboration to move it onto a common path?….HELL YES!


Reframing is great, but it is only one technique and a starting block. To truly breakthrough perfectionist tendencies long term and strive towards fulfilling and healthy success, uncovering the internal narrative and the “why” behind these behaviours is crucial. Understanding this can unlock ways to challenge that narrative, exercise self-compassion and release the barriers to UNLEASE YOUR FULL GREATNESS. Working in partnership with a coach can really aid you in achieving these aims, and doing so in a relatively short space of time so you can reach your career goals more quickly.


If you would like more information on how working with a coach might benefit you and help you reach your full, fulfilled potential, please feel free to reach out to me (why not try a no strings attached exploration call) to explore whether I might be the right coach to support you on this journey.

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