The problem with perfectionists

People often brag about being perfectionists – but new research shows people much prefer colleagues with realistic expectations.

When you hear the word ‘perfectionist’, someone may spring to mind nearly instantly – a boss, colleague or even work friend whose standards have almost nothing to do with reality. They await the impossible from themselves or others, put in hours and hours making tweaks invisible to anyone but themselves, then wind up burnt out and exhausted by the end of the week.

Often these people will even advertise this trait, announcing brightly: “I’m a bit of a perfectionist”. It’s a boast of sorts, and a way to differentiate themselves as a star employee. After all, who wouldn’t want to hire someone who strives for perfection?

Although perfectionism can permeate every corner of a person’s life, it’s rife in professional contexts (Credit: Alamy)The answer may not be a resounding ‘yes’. Increasingly, research suggests that perfectionism isn’t a professional trait you necessarily want to advertise. It can actually negatively affect the workplace environment, alienate colleagues and make it harder for teams to get along. Forthcoming research suggests that perfectionists might be far from the ideal, or even preferred, colleague to work with.

And while perfectionism can permeate every corner of a person’s life, it’s rife in professional contexts, if you ask people in what domain they are perfectionists, the most frequent answer is always the workplace. There’s a lot of performance and evaluation inherent in the tasks. Research has tended to focus on perfectionists’ actual output, rather than the effect it might have on team climate or interpersonal relationships. But it’s worth investigating. Good team climate is important for mental wellbeing at work.

Is perfectionism any good?

Initially, before the 1950s, many psychologists thought perfectionism was wholly negative and deeply neurotic. 

In the decades since, academic opinion has become a little more conciliatory. On the one hand, perfectionism seems to be closely correlated with mental-health difficulties, including depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Professionally speaking, it can equate to burnout and stress, as expecting the impossible may mean setting yourself up for failure. On the other hand, perfectionists have been found to be more motivated and conscientious than their non-perfectionist peers, both highly desirable traits in an employee.

In a best-case scenario, perfectionists successfully channel their high standards into doing great work – while cutting themselves and others some slack when things don’t go perfectly.

Different approaches

These days, most researchers agree that perfectionism comes in many different forms, some of which may be more harmful than others.

One well-accepted definition splits perfectionists into three groups. You might be a “self-oriented perfectionist”, who sets very high standards for just yourself; a “socially prescribed perfectionist”, who believes that the acceptance of others is dependent on your own perfection; or an “other-oriented perfectionist”, who expects flawlessness from those around them. Each type has their own strengths and weaknesses – and some are more harmful to a team dynamic than others.

The first kind of perfectionist fixates on achieving excessively high standards; the second is obsessed with not making mistakes. While both groups exhibited some of the downsides of perfectionism, including workaholism, anxiety and burnout, they were especially true of the “failure avoiding” perfectionists, who also were more likely not to be “agreeable”.

Even though perfectionists may be undesirable colleagues, perhaps surprisingly, there was no relationship between perfectionism and job performance for either group, says researcher Dana Harari, who worked on the meta-analysis. “To me, the most important takeaway of this research is the null relationship between perfectionism and performance,” she says. “It’s not positive, it’s not negative, it’s just really null.”

Your perfectionist colleague may be setting themselves up for failure – especially when it comes to getting along with others. Research suggests that by throwing all their weight at one task, they may inadvertently neglect others along the way, or miss the value of maintaining positive relationships with their co-workers. People who manage perfectionists, meanwhile, should encourage them to invest a little less in their work and a little more in their own wellbeing.

And if you’ve read this with a sinking sense of guilt about your own workplace behaviour, go easy on yourself. No one’s perfect, after all.

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