Is Perfection in the Workplace Worth It?
The downfalls of perfectionism in the workplace.
Posted Jul 20, 2020
In the competitive field of business, striving for perfection is often considered an admirable trait. From long-time CEOs to beginner business owners, individuals are setting standards higher and higher in an effort to reach success, and many associate perfectionism with stronger performance outcomes, or high levels of conscientiousness. However, is constantly seeking perfection in one’s work doing more harm than good?
While working toward improvement—and even perfection—in the workplace by no means inherently negative, more and more researchers are beginning to uncover this “dark side” of perfectionism, and the harm it can do to an individual if they are not careful. Some are calling this kind of perfectionism “negative perfectionism," “maladaptive perfectionism,” or even “neurotic perfectionism."
However this concept is being labeled, the core characteristics are relatively well agreed upon: rigidity, all-or-nothing evaluation of performance, fear of failure, an inability to achieve work satisfaction, etc. (Harari, Swider, Steed, & Breidenthal, 2018). The idea is that constantly raising the bar toward perfection without a sense of balance has the potential to be incredibly damaging to a person’s physical health, mental health, performance, and more.
The Roots of Negative Perfectionism
One of the keys to understanding perfectionism’s impact on individuals in the workplace is examining some of the potential factors contributing to perfectionistic tendencies—especially when those tendencies become maladaptive. Some studies have pointed to childhood environment as a factor worth noting, where children who were held to impossibly high standards by their parents naturally began maintaining those expectations for themselves through adulthood. Depending on other factors (i.e. celebrating a child’s wins, or learning to accept failures), there is a potential for perfectionism to take on a more adaptive shape. However, parenting that is reported as “harsh” can create challenges for a person later in life, where the consequence of not meeting those expectations can often result in shame or guilt.
Other studies have yielded a positive relationship between higher Trait Anxiety and negative perfectionism; this may have to do with an individual’s fear of failure or inadequacy, and a desire to avoid negative consequences associated with not meeting expectations. As a result, an individual will aim for perfection in every task and may see any outcome short of “perfection” as the dreaded failure.
The Consequences of Negative Perfectionism
When perfectionist behaviors/cognitions lie within the scope of negative or maladaptive perfectionism, it can often damage an individual’s mental health and physical health.
To start, negative or maladaptive perfectionism has been associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression symptoms, especially when anxiety is considered worry-type or social-type (Kawamura et al., 2001). This could potentially be because perfectionism is often linked with higher levels of neuroticism, which is then related to higher rates of anxiety, stress, and burnout in professionals. These increased levels of anxiety and stress frequently lead to short term physical distress, as well as the potential for longer-term physical health complications (Ocampo, Wang, Kiazad, Restubog, & Ashkanasy, 2020).
Aside from concerns for mental and physical health, maladaptive perfectionism has also been shown to negatively impact professionals’ performance. In some cases, this is a consequence of increased anxiety, depression, and burnout. In others, it results from creating a neurotic atmosphere in the workplace, which can damage the functionality of not only the individual but other employees or managers that work with them.
One study in particular also found that managers that rated themselves as “workaholics” and higher in perfectionism also reported lower job satisfaction, lower joy at work, and greater difficulty delegating tasks to others. In sum, while it is important to work toward success in business, allowing perfectionism to become maladaptive can lead to significant issues for an individual’s health and performance.
Combating Negative Perfectionism at Work
While negative perfectionism can be damaging, researchers have begun exploring ways that these tendencies can be approached, to potentially prevent problems in the workplace. As data continues to emerge about perfectionism, it is critical for businesses to educate employees, managers, etc. about what these tendencies look like, and how harmful they can be. Some have also recommended implementing the use of recovery measures into organizations, to track perfectionism, self-care, stress, and recovery in employees.
One study by Beheshtifar, Mazrae-Sefidi, & Nekoie Moghadam (2011) presented a framework for managing negative perfectionism as it presents itself in the workplace. Within this framework, there was a list of action steps that could be taken to combat perfectionistic behavior, including ideas like “setting SMART goals," “confronting the fear of failure,” and “celebrating wins” (Beheshtifar, Mazrae-Sefidi, & Nekoie Moghadam, 2011). Keeping action steps like this in mind could be an excellent way for organizations to prevent and reduce the effects of negative perfectionism, both on an individual and a systemic level.
Being aware of the balance between seeking success and needing perfection can be a major factor in protecting the health and performance of an individual in the workplace. As research continues to unpack these ideas, it will be important for employers to stay aware of how perfectionism can take shape in their organization, and work toward healthy and productive solutions.
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