Perfectionism: Impossible Dream

Practice may make perfect, but perfectionism makes for reduced job performance, depression, and illness—not to mention alienated colleagues.

So reports psychologist J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., who looked at the lifestyles and personalities of 9,211 managers and professionals. His conclusion: Striving for perfection is likely to harm employees and companies alike.

"Perfectionism has nothing to do with actually trying to perfect anything." Lafferty says. "It is about illusion, the desire to look good." Because they equate their self-worth with flawless performance, perfectionists often get hung up on meaningless details and spend more time on projects than is necessary. Ultimately, productivity suffers.

Another problem is that perfectionists may cover up errors in an attempt to maintain a superhuman image. That's why, contrary to expectations, perfectionists are ill-suited to working in risky environments like nuclear reactors or high-tech fighter planes, where mistakes must be shared at once to avoid catastrophe. Indeed, a study of pilots found that accidents and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand.

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Disaster can also ensue when perfectionism pervades corporate culture. "The ability to make the distinction between what is achievable and what isn't is highly associated with business effectiveness." says Lafferty, of Human Synergistics International, a Michigan consulting firm. He cites one major company that nearly engineered its own demise by setting sales goals so high that it failed to meet them for 16 consecutive years.

While working under such conditions takes its toll on employees, it is the perfectionists themselves who suffer most from their compulsions. Their self-induced stress leads to a cornucopia of health problems, from headaches and chest pains to depression and impotence. "Achievement acts as an insulation against physical illness," notes Lafferty, "while perfectionism seems almost to conduct it."

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