How Perfectionism Can Hurt a Team

There’s nothing wrong with striving to do your best. But what happens when ambition becomes the detriment of your success?

Perfectionism is a trait characterized by setting unrealistic standards for oneself, often with rigid adherence, and equating one’s self-worth with the outcome. Those who identify as “perfectionists” often set high goals, especially when it comes to professional work settings, which isn’t an inherently negative thing. In fact, many managers and employees view perfectionism as a positive attribute equated with higher success and productivity.

This is not to say that striving to be the best at something is a bad thing. All businesses would be better its employees tried to be elite at what they do. “Healthy perfectionism” can encourage one to persist through setbacks, tackle a problem from a new angle, and strive for excellence.

Where perfectionism can teeter towards hurting an individual—and the larger teams they work on—is when their admirable tendencies shift, and the individual begins equating their performance with critical self-evaluation.

Research on perfectionism’s impact on job performance shows that it often detracts from employee innovation and is associated with higher levels of burnout. Managers report finding it harder to foster cultures of creativity, empowerment, and personal responsibility alongside overly perfectionist teammates. Individuals imposing excessive perfectionist standards report higher levels of depression due to unrealistic standards, which often snowballs into impacts on the employee’s physical health, job performance, burnout/stress levels, and personal relationships.

What can organizations and managers do to identify unhealthy perfectionism on a team and foster an environment of self-compassion and empathy? Let’s examine this company culture leadership style and the ways it can be avoided.

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Types of Perfectionism in the Workplace

Early pioneers in studying perfectionism in the workplace identified three distinct subtypes of perfectionism:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism—This is defined as setting and enacting unrealistic self-standards, as well as critically evaluating and censoring one’s behavior. This trait suffers from strong motivation to avoid failure by attaining perfection.
  2. Other-oriented perfectionism—This type of perfectionism involves setting unreasonable standards for others, such as loved ones or work colleagues, by outwardly placing importance on the perfection or success of others and stringently evaluating their performance.
  3. Socially prescribed perfectionism—Individuals suffering from socially prescribed perfectionism believe themselves to be subjects of others’ perfectionistic expectations. They feel pressure from others and are evaluated critically on their performance.

There has been a rise in all three perfectionism subtypes in recent decades, especially as millennials have entered the workplace and risen to managerial positions. Studies suggest that globalization, paired with social media exposure, has caused young adults to compare themselves and hold rigid salary, education, and career standards.

Positive and Negative Perfectionism at the Workplace

Perfectionist traits can manifest in both positive and negative ways, depending on how they are channeled.

Positive Perfectionism

Moderate levels of perfectionism can be seen as healthy. Studies show that moderate perfectionism correlated with feelings of pride in the workplace and prevented employees from feeling shame or anxiety. It’s also been found that moderate perfectionism was associated with better organizational skills, higher levels of self-motivation, and better use of functional coping strategies.

But, there is an inflection point where the negative traits associated with perfectionist mindsets begin to outweigh the positives. For organizations, maladaptive perfectionism can cost teams greatly when an individual confuses high standards with unrealistic goals, or they believe that flaws can be eliminated and perfection can be realistically achieved.

Maladaptive Perfectionism

Perfectionism becomes detrimental when it has an impact on an individual’s self-worth and overall performance. Employers can see perfectionism manifest in the following ways:

  • Missing deadlines due to perfectionism—Self-doubt arises and erodes confidence in teams and well-meaning employees who focus on subjective “perfection” instead of objective checks and balances to move projects along.
  • Perfectionism mindset hurts collaboration—Teammates may be less likely to share ideas or contribute to a project when standards are unrealistically high, out of fear of not meeting the mark. When nothing feels ‘good enough,’ collaboration suffers.
  • Diminished Respect—Teams need to ensure that when mistakes are made, they aren’t condemned under perfectionistic expectations.
  • Stagnant Innovation—Perfectionism stifles innovation because creative ideas often come from messy processes, brainstorming, and taking risks, which all require the freedom to make mistakes. Instead, perfectionism squelches new ideas in place of “coloring inside the lines.”
  • Delayed Decision-Making—When employees fear making a wrong decision because it isn’t perfect, processes can slow or completely halt. Good decision-making requires flexibility and agility—two traits that are stifled by perfectionist mindsets—to prevent workflow bottlenecks.
  • Anxious Environment—If nothing is ever good enough, your teammates will end up feeling inferior or anxious, which can cause analysis paralysis. Employees need to be empowered to make tough decisions or move forward in their daily tasks without fear of retribution.
  • Suffered Productivity—Perfection is a standard that can never be achieved, so focusing on ‘perfect’ is a moot goal. When teams set unrealistic standards, they may inadvertently hurt productivity by delaying forward momentum on a project.

How to Reverse and Prevent Maladaptive Perfectionism in the Workplace

If you notice an employee or manager displaying potentially harmful perfectionist tendencies, consider encouraging them to take action to curb the behavior. But be mindful that perfectionism isn’t a personality type; it’s a trait someone likely developed throughout their lifetime. Modifying this behavior may take time.

Here are some things you can do to prevent or reverse maladaptation perfectionism in the workplace:

  • Check in on your employees to ensure they aren’t overloading themselves or taking on impossible tasks that could impact project outcomes.
  • Set SMART goals with the employee and set realistic expectations/deadlines.
  • Re-focus employee goals on strategy rather than outcome.
  • Break down large goals into smaller, more manageable subgoals.
  • Experiment with standards for success, and be sure to celebrate wins—big and small.
  • When failure happens, help the individual confront the fear of failure.
  • Learn to appreciate imperfection by learning/growing from mistakes.
  • Focus on stress reduction tactics for the entire team by encouraging frequent breaks and socialization.
  • Practice positivity and use affirmations to build confidence in individuals and encourage self-compassion.
  • Emphasize the attributes of each team member so they understand their unique strengths, skillsets, and even areas for improvement.

Teams Work Better When Harmful Perfectionism is Addressed

According to a Harvard study, taking measures against perfectionist mindsets will become a larger managerial priority in the coming years due to its growing presence in workplace culture. Although we cannot prevent maladaptive perfectionism from occurring, organizations can take measures against it by staying mindful of its impact, encouraging self-compassion, and building a positive company culture where employees feel comfortable.

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