The Perils of Perfectionism

Being described as a perfectionist often carries a positive connotation. It implies high standards and a keen attention to detail. If you are on the receiving end, you can generally count on work being provided that is of excellent quality. If you are the carrier of that title, however, it is very likely that you pay a high price. Perfection is often coupled with a strong tendency to obsess over things and be overly compulsive. This can be unproductive, frustrating, and often unhealthy.

A 10-year study of more than 9,000 managers conducted by Human Synergistics, found in 1994 that 18 percent of the managers were perfectionists. They had a 75 percent higher incidence of illness than their better-adjusted office mates.

Traits of the perfectionist

Perfectionists have difficulty in recognizing when enough is enough. Reasonable performance is never quite good enough. Since a job can always be improved, too much time is spent polishing things that do not deserve the extra attention. Perfectionism and a pursuit of excellence are not the same thing. Having high standards is fine. Wanting others to perform well is also fine, but the trap for perfectionists is always having to prove themselves over and over again.

Perfectionists have difficulty establishing clear goals, for themselves or for others. Delegating, sharing work, and letting go are challenges. Giving control and authority to other people, and trusting that others can perform to such exacting standards is often a source of contention. Perfectionists are very, very hard on themselves, and are unforgiving when they make a mistake. When others make a mistake, they are equally unyielding. This sometimes causes troubled relationships with colleagues and partners.

Getting bogged down in minor details, insisting on checking everybody’s work at every step of the way, and not giving other people the authority to make decisions, even minor ones, often means that the perfectionist is the bottleneck in a work production cycle.

Perfectionists, by wanting everyone to be just so, often over-commit themselves, and find themselves procrastinating on projects. Rhea Cross, a graduate student at a California State University, Hayward, says, “I often over-commit so that I have the opportunity to prove myself. When I end up meeting all the commitments, it is at great stress to myself.”

When perfectionists hire others, they often hire people who are like themselves, creating challenges and competitions that are extraneous to the already highly competitive work environment. And then there are often conflicts when overzealous taskmasters collide with capable, but less than totally obsessive, employees. Others who have more balance in their lives and go home at a reasonable time at night can be seen as less serious or less committed, even though that is not always true.

Breaking through

If you identify yourself as a perfectionist, what can you do about it? Remember that habits are hard to break, so start slowly. Begin to recognize the difference between an acceptable level of performance and a perfect level of performance. Make a list of these tasks at work (or at home) that you do regularly. List those that by results or consequences truly deserve excellence. Note the ones that can be done to a lower standard but still be acceptable. Become aware of extremist thinking: If it is not absolutely the best, it is terrible. Recognize and begin to appreciate middle ground.

Set attainable, reasonable goals not only for others, but also for yourself. That includes going home earlier in the evenings, and stopping on the third draft of an internal memo instead of the sixth. Getting someone else to help you set those new goals is helpful because — you guessed it — if you’re left unattended, your tendency is to over-commit.

Analyze the types of decisions you have to make on a day-to-day basis, and ask yourself two important questions: “Which of these decisions can someone else make?” and “Even if their decision is different from mine, is it something I can live with?” If so, let them make those decisions. This alone will help alleviate some of your workload and go a long way toward decreasing their frustration. In the long run, how truly important is much of what you spend your days doing? Focus on excellence that is attainable, healthy, and exciting. Perfection, by contrast, focuses on never making mistakes. And who can learn, grow, and thrive without mistakes?


Rettner, Rachel,”Being a Perfectionist Can Take Toll on Health,”, July 12, 2010

“Pitfalls of Perfectionism,” Psychology Today, March 1, 2008

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