PURSUIT OF PERFECTION: ENEMY OF INNOVATION

It takes a qualified mental health professional and science-based diagnostic assessment to determine if an individual suffers from any form of perfectionism or mental illness. The following discussion represents no official diagnosis of any specific individual. It is meant for information only.

Work with your Human Resources Department if you have any concerns regarding mental illness or psychopathy in the workplace. They will guide leadership in how the organization might support the employee.


“I’m a perfectionist.” How many times have you heard that from a coworker, supervisor or in an interview? At first light, you might think this individual is perfect for detail-oriented tasks. You might consider them for supervisory work that requires a detailed review of subordinate work products. But, is this character trait really what the organization needs?

WHAT IS IT?

Perfectionism is striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards of performance accompanied by overly critical evaluations of your own or other peoples’ behavior.”[1]

REALITY CHECK

Are you breathing right now? Do you have a belly button? Your record is already ruined, my friend. Innate to the human condition is failure, mistakes, and lessons learned. Great innovation is born of imperfection.

Perfection is a cruel myth. It does not exist. There is something wrong when a person seeks the unattainable standard of perfection, it is important to observe how well they cope when they fail to meet that expectation.

HOW DOES IT LOOK?

According to University of British Columbia psychologist and professor, Dr. Paul Hewitt and his researcher cohort, Dr. Gordon Flett, more than 20-years of research have shown that perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems.[2] In other words, the effects of perfectionism permeate the entire lives of individuals affected by the trait.

There are three types of perfectionism: [3],[4]

  • Self-Oriented:  These individuals set excessively high standards for themselves.
  • Socially Prescribed: These individuals are self-critical. They fear rejection and experience profound pressure to impress others. Their anxiety is driven by a misperceived external pressure from family, place of work, or society.
  • OtherOriented: These individuals are faultfinding and judgmental toward others. They hold unreasonable expectations of team members or subordinates and they are extremely critical when they fail to meet their unrealistic expectations.

Leaders should be aware of the problems associated with each of these traits. Elevated levels of any of these perfectionistic types could cause issues with productivity and/or interrelational challenges with team members.

ORGANIZATIONAL CONSIDERATIONS

Perfectionism wears away at every cultural strategy as it erodes engagement and morale. The effects of this issue when a team member suffers from it are bad enough. It is worse, exacerbated and more profound when leadership evidences these traits.

It was Peter Ferdinand Drucker, known as the father of modern management, who said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” So, the C-Suite can strategize engagement, experience, or transformation to no avail as long as this type of erosion continues its rampage.

Leadership should be aware of the signs of perfectionism and their potential negative effect on productivity, morale, and the overall organizational culture.

Self-Oriented Perfectionism

According to research[5], elevated levels of self-oriented perfectionism can result in unrealistic expectations of themselves and may result in an excessive compulsion or fixation on attaining unrealistic goals and standards. This form of perfectionism can be exhausting for the perfectionist and for their team members because it can result in analysis paralysis and slow down productivity.

Socially Prescribed Perfectionism

The research further indicates that those with this perfectionist trait project their standards onto others. They perceive that others expect them to be perfect and their self-worth depends on gaining the approval and acceptance of others.

This form of perfectionism can be exhausting for the perfectionist and for their team members because the perfectionist’s ability to cope with perceived failures may impact productivity and their ability to collaborate with team members.

Other-Oriented Perfectionism

The research also suggests that elevated levels of this type of perfectionism can result in significant problems with functioning, depression, anxiety, anger, suicidal tendencies, and professional interpersonal problems. The chaos, interpersonal challenges, and stress permeate the lives, careers, and relationships of those affected by this trait. Interpersonal relationships are difficult to maintain because of conflict and boundary challenges.

These individuals’ entire self-esteem depends on meeting the standard of perfectionism that they perceive emanates from unsuspecting others. But, instead of turning inward, these individuals externalize and project their inner conflict by criticizing others for not meeting the standards they, themselves, fail to attain.

This form of perfectionism can be exhausting for their team members and when the perfectionist is in leadership, morale and engagement cannot coexist.

ADVICE FOR LEADERSHIP

Here are some guidelines for addressing perfectionism in the workplace. Your first point of contact if you recognize such issues is your Human Resources Department.

  1. Always recognize that what may present as a behavioral challenge could be perpetuated by a mental health issue. Disciplinary action might not be the best method for addressing the cultural disruptions that may result from a mental health issue.
  2. Remember that there are ways to support an employee suffering from perfectionism. Remember, also, that those suffering collateral damage from that employee also need support.
  3. There is a fine line between transparency and protecting the privacy of an affected individual. All communications regarding the matter should go through Human Resources. This ensures that privacy, civil rights, and employment laws are adhered to in the process.

Finally, consider adding a licensed clinical social worker to the Human Resources team. These mental health professionals are qualified to train staff in how to de-escalate a potential threat and how to cope with mental health challenges in the workplace.


[1] Stoeber, J. (2017). The psychology of perfectionism: An introduction. In The psychology of perfectionism (pp. 17-30) Routledge.

[2] Benson, E. (2003). The many faces of perfectionism. 34(10), 18. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/ nov03/manyfaces.html

[3] Klibert, J. J. & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J. & Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism. Journal of College Student Development 46(2), 141-156. Johns Hopkins University Press.

[4] Stoeber, J., (2014). How other-oriented perfectionism differs from self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment 36(2), 329–338. doi.org/10.1007/s10862-013-9397-7.

[5] Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1996). The multidimensional perfectionism scale. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems Inc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s