The cost of perfectionism
When asked to describe their weaknesses during job interviews, many candidates claim that they are perfectionists. Such candidates likely believe that saying they have extremely high standards for performance might be seen as a strength. However, data collected from real organisations show that perfectionism may have more negative than positive consequences.
Perfectionism is a tendency to set excessively high standards of performance coupled with an overcritical view of oneself. Unfortunately, perfectionism may be increasing. Researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill have found that perfectionism rose significantly in British, American and Canadian university students between 1989 and 2016. More recent trend data are not yet available.
Psychologists have identified that perfectionism consists of two broad dimensions. One, called ‘adaptive’ or ‘striving’ perfectionism, measures tendencies towards having high standards and being organised and motivated to achieve those standards. Striving perfectionism has been measured by people’s agreement with statements in psychometric tests such as ‘I expect higher performance in my daily tasks than most people’ and ‘I have extremely high goals’.
The second dimension – ‘maladaptive’ or ‘failure-avoiding’ perfectionism – measures tendencies towards experiencing worry and distress over mistakes or even the possibility of making errors. This has been measured by people’s agreement with statements such as ‘If I do not do well all the time, people will not respect me’ and ‘If someone does a task at work better than me, then I feel like I failed at the whole task’.
Striving perfectionism and failure-avoiding perfectionism exist in differing degrees in different people, with different consequences. For example, analyses led by Dana Harari at Georgia Institute of Technology found that both types of perfectionism were linked to longer hours worked. While both were associated with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, the relationship was much stronger for failure-avoiding perfectionism than striving perfectionism.
Striving perfectionism was also only moderately related to risk of career burnout; failure-avoiding perfectionism was much more significantly related to risk of burnout.
Perhaps surprisingly, data show virtually no relationship between either dimension of perfectionism and job performance. Despite the fact that perfectionists may work longer hours and believe themselves to hold higher standards, their overall performance turns out to be no better than that of their non-perfectionistic colleagues.
Jobhunters answering interview questions about weaknesses may believe that professing to perfectionism gives them an advantage. However, the data suggest that perfectionists are not any better at their jobs – and the fact that they work longer hours may mean that they are less efficient, too. Remember also that perfectionists are more at risk of career burnout. In actuality, then, perfectionism may be more of a cost than benefit to both organisations and individuals.
Distracted by worries
Perfectionism may reduce people’s efficiency because of its negative effects on their mental health. Perfectionists – especially those experiencing high levels of failure-avoiding perfectionism – may spend non-trivial amounts of time being distracted by worries and feelings of anxiety or depression, reducing their efficiency. Alternatively (or perhaps additionally), perfectionists may not achieve better results because of a failure to prioritise properly; they may invest too much time perfecting certain tasks and neglect more important projects.
Procrastination is also not uncommon as perfectionists sometimes wait for impossibly perfect conditions before beginning tasks. Perfectionistic managers tend to micromanage employees, engendering resentment and stifling both creativity and productivity.
When coaching perfectionistic individuals, I encourage them to consider frequently the opportunity costs of perfectionism. Will spending 20% more time on a task genuinely deliver 20% more benefit – or could that time be better spent on other, more impactful work?
I also often recommend self-care and recovery activities such as mindfulness and techniques drawn from cognitive behavioural therapy to mitigate against the mental health harms of perfectionism. A recent academic paper written by psychologists led by the University of Buffalo’s Hanna Suh confirmed that psychological interventions do decrease the dimensions of perfectionism as well as feelings of anxiety and depression. Their data also showed that online consultations were as effective as face-to-face treatments.
Be kind to yourself
Recent research headed by Madeleine Ferrari at the Australian Catholic University found that the practice of self-compassion weakened the relationship between perfectionism and reduced mental health. To reduce the effects of perfectionism, try modifying your self-talk when you make a mistake or worry about making one.
Rather than punishing yourself incessantly, imagine the language your kindest friend or family member might use in speaking to you, reassuring you and reminding you that you’re only human.
Author: Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace
This article was first published in AB magazine August 2022
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