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Overcoming Perfectionism at Work

Mary's Son Smith with Work Googles On

I find perfectionism to be confounding. Sometimes, I speed through something, not really caring if there is a typo or mistake. In other instances, I can procrastinate the heck out of a project because I feel ill-equipped to do the job. I can also straight-up spiral for days or weeks about how I screwed something up. But then again, look at my closet. I sling my clothes everywhere, and that perfectly color-coded system I made on that one afternoon of obsessiveness is now non-existent.

So do I need to work on overcoming perfectionism? I need answers.

Defining Perfectionism

Perfectionism – a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations. 

On the contrary, a functional pursuit of excellence also involves setting a high standard, but the definition of a high standard is flexible. You don’t fall into unhealthy rumination and self-criticism when you fall short. 

I discovered three primary types of perfectionism according to the work of Hewitt and Flett:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism – You set excessively high standards and strive for perfection from an intrinsically motivated place. 
  2. Socially-prescribed perfectionism – The difference here is a belief that acceptance by OTHERS is conditional on meeting the excessively high standards you’ve set.
  3. Other-oriented perfectionism – Expecting the others in your life to be perfect.

Here is the kicker. Perfectionism is not an all-or-nothing proposition.Domain-specific perfectionism is a concept which is as it sounds – perfectionism about one thing in your life but not another. 

Like most things, there is a spectrum. Go figure. 

The Effects of Perfectionism

The natural by-product of perfectionism is rumination, which can lead to increased mental health diagnoses like anxiety and depression.

Outside of those effects, while perfectionism can often lead to short-term wins in the workplace, it has a longer-term impact that often goes unseen. This makes so much sense to me. Early in your career or a new job, people praise you for thoroughness and a relentless pursuit of excellence, which is a performance indicator in many performance reviews. But these short-term wins can only take you so far. We often feel the effects of perfectionism in the long-term. Consider these:

  • Indecisiveness – People with perfectionist tendencies often continue researching until they are 100% confident in an answer or direction because they are unwilling to take a risk.
  • Avoiding Meaningful Projects – Deadlines can trigger anxiety, putting off the often important but mentally taxing or unclear/muddy projects.
  • Projecting – Leaders with perfectionist tendencies can subconsciously put their own beliefs on their direct reports leading them to set unrealistic goals, give unclear direction, or even give tasks or projects with WAY too many meaningless pieces.
  • Defensiveness – Because socially-prescribed perfectionists are motivated by the acceptance of others, when they don’t receive that, they can get a reputation for being defensive, leading to other people avoiding working with them.
  • Over-delivery – Part of becoming a great leader is knowing what to deliver in the simplest way possible. Perfectionists tend to include TOO much, making it hard for the receiver to parse out what’s essential in an efficient and meaningful way.

And, if you struggle with confidence, perfectionism can be hugely consequential because you are less likely to act, which is one of the primary ways to build your confidence.

Why Perfectionism Can Be Especially Seductive for Women

In early adolescence, girls often display higher social skills, longer attention spans, and better communication skills than boys. This can lead parents, teachers, and other adults to praise them for being “good” and “easy.” In other words, girls learn that creating LESS work on others is the mark of a deserving girl.

This type of understanding can create a subconscious belief that our value is based on what others think of, leading to socially-prescribed perfectionism.

I also believe that women have had to be perfect in so many ways for so long. Handling children, aging parents, working, errands, chores, etc. but making sure no one sees you struggling, especially at work, has meant survival for many. We say that perfectionism can destroy us, but we also don’t want working mothers to leave in the middle of the day to take their kids to the doctors or, for heaven’s sake, have a kid’s voice pipe into a conference call  – even now, three years into a global pandemic that was supposed to change the paradigm.

Furthermore, experiences for non-white women can be even more intense because of increased scrutiny or cultural norms in childhood. 

Overcoming Perfectionism

It’s important to note there are no overnight fixes or hacks, but rather a gentle and slow mindset shift. I know. Annoying. 

  1. Challenge your first reaction and think about where it comes from – Our first reactions are typically a result of a deeply held belief system that, quite frankly, may never change. Still, it doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Taking the time to notice your reaction and challenge that initial reaction can help you see the bigger picture. Often with me, it’s not professional Mary Nice who needs to be seen as perfect. Rather, it’s 11-year-old Mary Nice wanting love. Understanding what part of you needs to be perfect can be a powerful place to start.
  2. Write down your wins – Keep a list of your successes. When you get into a cycle of rumination, it’s hard to remember where you have succeeded. A list can help remind you.
  3. Practice receiving criticism – Perfectionists can often be wholly debilitated when receiving any criticism and either become defensive or completely withdrawn. Practicing with a trusted friend can be helpful, but you must be ready. You can say: “I’m trying to confront my fear of criticism. Can you help me by telling me one thing I can improve upon? Please be honest and open.” Repeat what you heard in your own words.
  4. Break projects down – People with perfectionist tendencies can procrastinate on larger projects because they fear failure or inevitable anxiety. Take the time to break big projects into bite-sized tasks that give you wins along the way.
  5. Determine a project’s objectives – Write out what the project should accomplish and what will be done with whatever you are producing. Take a project like a quarterly report. For perfectionists, there can be a tendency to put every.single.thing. that happened in that report, but that is impossible for the receiver to do anything with. Instead, take the time to write the document’s objective and what should be done with the learnings. 
  6. Define done – Give yourself 3-5 indicators that something is done and review that with another person.
  7. Confront perfectionism for someone else – Until you can start confronting your perfectionist tendencies for yourself, I find it helpful to think about someone else you would never want this for. Maybe it’s a daughter, a niece, or a friend. What would you tell your daughter about the circumstance where your perfectionist tendencies are showing up? 

Overcoming Perfectionism Must be a Workplace Priority

As we welcome more young people into the workplace, it’s more important than ever to recognize perfectionist tendencies. The research indicates that recent generations are harder on themselves and perceive that others are more demanding of them. In one research study, socially-prescribed perfectionism has increased at twice the rate of self-oriented perfectionism. 

Overcoming perfectionism is absolutely something we should all be focused on. As we focus on creating a healthier work environment where we can, and for the most part, enjoying our work, learning how to be flexible in a healthy pursuit of excellence can mean we avoid burnout and actually find some fulfillment in what we do.


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