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Are You a Perfectionist?

Three reasons why perfectionism is preventing you from advancing in your career.

Key points

  • The perfectionist has a difficult time prioritizing appropriate effort for tasks based on importance.
  • Perfectionists struggle to flex their thinking when necessary.
  • Perfectionists can disrupt a team when the perfectionistic standards are projected outward to others.

When a job interviewer asks, “What's your greatest weakness?” many job seekers think the most strategic answer is, “I’m a perfectionist.”

Yes, workers who are perfectionistic tend to exhibit a variety of positive traits, like being honest, loyal, attentive to detail, and conscientious.1 But perfectionism comes with many negative effects that harm a workplace and cause an organization’s productivity to slow to a grinding halt. In other words, it’s not the savvy interview response interviewees think it is.

There are a variety of ways that perfectionism prevents workers from advancing in their careers. Below are three overarching categories of negative characteristics of perfectionism that disrupt the workplace and obstruct a worker’s career progression.

1. Dysfunctional Emphasis Framework

The Emphasis Framework characterizes the ways in which we allocate effort and value to life’s tasks.2 The framework is characterized by three types of effort/value allocation: Emphasis A, B, and C.

Emphasis A refers to an “all out” approach—we give the task everything we’ve got because it’s important to us (consistent with our values). For example, if we are trying to get licensed as a Speech Language Therapist, we might opt to use an Emphasis A approach to study for the licensing exam because of its importance to our career.

Emphasis B, on the other hand, is the “git ‘er done” strategy. Effort needs to be sufficient to get the task completed but not necessarily with excellence. The finished product doesn’t need to be superb, but it doesn’t need to be awful, either. Most tasks in life necessitate an Emphasis B strategy.

Emphasis C is the “don’t do it at all” strategy—the decision not to allocate any attention to a task. In a healthy emphasis framework, Emphasis C is strategic. We opt not to complete a task because it’s not important to us and isn’t worth our resources. For example, we might choose not to open our junk mail because we don’t see the value in doing so.

There’s an appropriate time and place for all three of these effort strategies; there is no inherent judgment to any of them. The approach we choose for a given task in a given circumstance is based on our values and needs.

Here’s the problem with perfectionists—they try to use Emphasis A for everything. Non-perfectionists have a higher use of Emphasis B relative to Emphasis A, whereas the perfectionist exhibits the reverse. Trying to adopt Emphasis A for everything is impossible, as there just isn’t enough time or resources.

Perfectionists have a difficult time discerning which emphasis strategy to use, default to Emphasis A as a result, and then have a hard time switching to a different strategy (because of cognitive rigidity—see the section below). When we try to use Emphasis A for everything, we inevitably fail and need to delay or avoid other tasks. That is, tasks from Emphasis A get forced to Emphasis C. When this happens, instead of our values and needs determining our Emphasis C selection, it’s the perfectionism doing so.

A dysfunctional emphasis framework sabotages workplace well-being and functioning because of all this. Deadlines are chronically missed, and tasks don’t get completed due to avoidance and procrastination.3 This pattern also saps worker productivity.

The dysfunction in emphasis selection also occurs in planning tasks, which is called process paralysis. Perfectionists want to identify the optimal strategy for completing tasks or the ideal order of operations for completing tasks. They get stuck landing on the “perfect” strategy and as a result never even get started on the required task in the first place.

In addition, others in the workplace get sucked into the pattern via safety behaviors.3 These refer to the coping techniques perfectionists use to calm their anxiety, such as seeking considerable reassurance from others (e.g., “Does this email sound okay?”), excessively creating overly detailed lists, checking their work for the gazillionth time, and seeking deadline extensions and other exceptions (read: special treatment). These types of behaviors rope in everyone around the perfectionist and cause exhaustion and resentment.

2. Cognitive Rigidity

Of all the features of perfectionism, this is probably its hallmark characteristic.3 Cognitive rigidity refers to difficulties with shifting mindsets. It’s an inflexible approach to life. We might get stuck on a perspective or with using a behavior and have a difficult time pivoting to new ones, even in the face of evidence suggesting that we do so. This can look like stubbornness or narrow-mindedness. Often this means that perfectionists get stuck in the details of a task and have a difficult time zooming out to see the big picture.

Sometimes this cognitive rigidity takes the form of getting overfocused on rules instead of prioritizing the underlying principles that undergird those rules. In fact, a perfectionist might even get stuck abiding by a rule, even at the expense of the underlying principle.

For example, they might get stuck making sure there are no errors in their work before submitting (the rule: “check your work for errors before turning it in”), even if this causes them to miss the deadline and not get the project completed on time (e.g., the principle: “produce quality work”). In this case, the perfectionist was so stuck on the rule of not turning in a product with errors that they undermined the underlying principle of producing quality work (i.e., the work never got produced because it was not submitted on time).

Cognitive rigidity can be devastating for a perfectionist’s career. It’s associated with less creativity and innovation.4 The perfectionist is hyper-focused on rules and tends to struggle with flexing rules as needed. Because of their inflexibility, perfectionists tend to be seen by others as stubborn and unaffected by evidence contradicting their viewpoints and behavior. They often struggle to change based on feedback. When workers with perfectionism get stuck in the details, they often miss big-picture concepts that drive important business needs.

3. Other-Oriented Moralism

Sometimes perfectionism presents in an other-oriented manner; perfectionistic expectations are projected outward and applied to others.3 This means holding other people in the workplace to excessive and rigid standards. This is especially problematic when holding others to rigid and excessive moral standards.

When this type of tendency shows up, it can look a lot like the perfectionist policing others in the workplace when it’s not their job to do so. They can come across as self-righteous, and coworkers feel like they must walk on eggshells around them. Coworkers often try to avoid this type of perfectionistic peer and see it as a major source of job dissatisfaction. In other words, other-oriented moralism can create a highly toxic work environment and result in tremendous damage to a team dynamic.


Perfectionism is a complex construct; it comes with good qualities (e.g., loyalty, conscientiousness) but also many characteristics that adversely affect the office environment. Three areas of perfectionism in particular drive much of the damage to a career trajectory: a dysfunctional emphasis framework, cognitive rigidity, and other-oriented moralism. These three not only impair a perfectionist’s ability to progress in their career, but they also disrupt the entire workplace.

Luckily, there are strategies that can help perfectionists and those who work with them. A future post will delve into some of these strategies, or you can get a comprehensive overview in my new book, Flawed.2 In the meantime, please consider the pitfalls of perfectionism in the career advancement process and remember that “I’m a perfectionist” might be a more loaded job interview response than we realize.


1. Stoeber, Joachim. “Dyadic Perfectionism in Romantic Relationships: Predicting Relationship Satisfaction and Longterm Commitment.” Personality and Individual Differences 53, no. 3 (August 2012): 300–305.

2. Chasson, Greg. Flawed: Why Perfectionism is a Challenge for Management. Oak Park, IL: Translational Mental Health Press, 2024.

3. Egan, Sarah J., Tracey D. Wade, Roz Shafran, and Martin M. Antony. Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Perfectionism. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2014.

4. Goulet‐Pelletier, Jean‐Christophe, Patrick Gaudreau, and Denis Cousineau. “Is Perfectionism a Killer of Creative Thinking? A Test of the Model of Excellencism and Perfectionism.” British Journal of Psychology 113, no. 1 (February 2022): 176–207.

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