perfectionism at work

Perfectionism at work: is it a strength or weakness?

Is perfectionism at work really a trait to be proud of? When discussing our strengths and weaknesses in the workplace, it is common to hear some people brag about how much of a perfectionist they are, highlighting it as a positive quality.  

This question can be controversial in today’s hectic world, which constantly praises and rewards over-productivity and over-demanding. But, if we dig a little deeper, we will find that the subjective experience of perfectionists is not as positive as it seems; they experience constant frustration linked to the dissatisfaction that represents the continuous pursuit of unattainable goals. 

If we ground the concept, perfection is a term linked to subjective interpretations of reality, i.e., it depends on each person. Therefore, achieving a result that is “perfect” in the eyes of everyone is a utopian objective.

perfectionism at work

What is perfectionism at work?

Perfectionist behaviours are those who want to achieve “ideal” standards of excellence (which are – in a way – utopian) in whatever activity they do. Whether through the development of an activity, work, hobby, physical image, or any other area, perfectionists want everything they do to be error-free and flawless. 

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Perfectionism at work is often reinforced positively, being considered a virtue. But nothing could be further from the truth. Perfectionism at work is observed through the pursuit of control over every detail, aiming that projects always achieve excellence and perfection (which is very difficult, if not impossible). Therefore, it brings with it high levels of demand that can ultimately translate into anxiety and frustration for the individual or a decrease in productivity for the company.

In fact, if we dig a little deeper, we find that perfectionism at work is actually a behaviour that hides a great fear of failure and a low tolerance for frustration, which is reflected through strict control and high levels of self-demand.

Signs of perfectionism at work

Perfectionism at work can appear in a variety of ways. This is why we have listed some common signs that will allow you to identify perfectionist behaviour:

  • High expectations: Perfectionism at work is often demonstrated through setting extremely high standards for different goals or projects, as well as a constant pressure to achieve perfection in everything that is done.
  • Fear of failure: As mentioned above, perfectionism is often linked to a fear of making mistakes. This is because mistakes or failure are seen as unacceptable. This way of thinking results in the person going over and over every detail of the task to certify that it is “perfect” (even if this is impossible).
  • Difficulty delegating: Perfectionism at work is also demonstrated through the “piling up” of responsibilities. Perfectionists may find it difficult to rely on others to carry out tasks, as they feel that only they can do things the “right” way. This results in an increased workload and the time needed to accomplish them, thus requiring overtime at work to get everything done.
  • Extreme self-demand: In line with the previous point and the high standards by which they evaluate their work, perfectionists tend to be very demanding and self-critical of themselves, and may feel dissatisfied – even with significant achievements – due to their constant search for perfection.
  • Constant revision: And because of this extreme self-demand, it is common to observe how perfectionists tend to repeatedly revise and correct their work, even after it has been completed. They are never satisfied and always see room for improvement, which can lead to feelings of discomfort and frustration.
  • Procrastination: Although it may seem contradictory, another sign of perfectionism at work can be seen in procrastination. Some people procrastinate because fear of failure or worry about being unable to achieve perfection prevents them from starting a task. That is, the false belief that tasks must be “perfect” creates a fear of failure, delaying the start of activities.
  • Over-involvement in details: Paying too much attention to details can be a sign of perfectionism. While attention to detail is valuable, perfectionists at work can lose sight of the big picture and spend too much time on trivial details rather than focusing on the outcome of the entire project.
perfectionism at work

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Risks of striving for perfection

There is a big difference between striving and striving for perfection. Effort mainly focuses on the work done, while the pursuit of perfection focuses on the result. 

It is important to note that this article does not seek to downplay the importance of effort in achieving goals but rather to emphasise that a job well done comes about when the focus is on the small actions we can carry out on a daily basis – in the best possible way – and not merely on the quality of the result.

From the perspective of perfectionism at work, it is argued that if the result does not meet the standards of excellence or perfection, the work performed automatically loses value, dismissing the whole execution process. This dismissal, and this focalised and critical vision that only pursues unrealistic standards, can represent risks for workers and the work performance that affects companies. Among them, we can mention:

perfectionism at work
  • Impact on mental health: Perfectionism at work can pose a risk to employees’ mental well-being, contributing to high levels of anxiety and stress due to the constant pressure to achieve extremely high standards. Of course, if this is sustained over time, it can have negative consequences for employees’ mental and physical health, for example, by causing exhaustion or burnout.
  • Deterioration of working relationships: People with high levels of perfectionism at work may experience a deterioration in their social skills. They may find it difficult to work in a team, as they tend to be overly critical of others and have unrealistic expectations about the expected results of a project. This can affect working relationships and the ability to collaborate.
  • Difficulty making decisions: Perfectionists may have difficulty making decisions because they fear making the wrong choice. This can lead to so-called “paralysis by analysis”, where more time is spent planning the activity than actually carrying it out. This can slow down processes and affect work efficiency.
  • Constant dissatisfaction: Even if they achieve significant goals, perfectionism at work can often cause people not to experience a lasting sense of satisfaction, as there is always something they could have done better, interpreting this as “not working hard enough”. This, in turn, has a negative impact on their self-esteem and self-worth.
  • Inability to solve problems efficiently: The constant pursuit of perfection can limit creativity because individuals may be afraid to experiment or try new ideas for fear of not meeting perfect standards.
  • Work-life imbalance: The pursuit of perfection at work may cause individuals to devote too much time and energy to the work area while neglecting other important aspects of their lives, such as personal relationships, leisure, and self-care.

What can we do to work towards perfectionism at work?

Acknowledging the existence of these risks is not intended to instil fear, nor to direct our behaviour towards the opposite extreme. Rather, it is to seek a healthy balance between striving for and accepting that absolute perfection may be unattainable. 

Companies, managers, and leaders can make a positive impact in work environments to avoid these extremes. When perfectionism at work becomes excessive and detrimental to workers’ mental well-being and job performance, companies can help by implementing strategies to reduce such risks. For example, by setting realistic goals, appropriate deadlines, and promoting spaces of psychological safety in which to learn from mistakes, interpreting them as key strategies for the pursuit of mental well-being. 

Perfectionism at work, rather than a strength, represents a risk that must be tackled in time before it triggers major problems for employees and companies. In fact, it is estimated that this problem affects 92% of the population. For this reason, it is vital to team up with experts to enable us to tackle the problem in time.

perfectionism at work

Supporting mental well-being in companies

At ifeel, we know that fostering an environment where employees feel safe to express their thoughts and be themselves improves their mental well-being and boosts creativity, innovation, and overall company performance.

To support companies in this process, our team of expert workplace well-being psychologists has created a mental well-being solution for businesses that improves talent retention, reduces presenteeism, and combats employee stress. 

With our mental well-being solution, your company’s HR managers can receive personalised, data-driven advice on improving mental health at work. In addition, this solution offers employees a 360° mental well-being service structured at different levels according to their needs. Try our solution now to see how it could help you.

We hope you found this article about perfectionism at work interesting. If you would like more information about our mental well-being solution for companies, simply request it, and we will contact your team as soon as possible.

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