We laugh about responses to the interview question – what’s your main weakness? But for me, the obvious answer, “My perfectionism, of course”, is the truth. For me, and for many others, perfectionism at work is not a good thing.
Take this blog for example. I started it with no expectations – I would just enjoy the process of using organisational psychology to understand the world around me. It wouldn’t need to be justified with numerous citations, have a watertight logic and make a substantive contribution. I could just write. And I loved writing it. But then the perfectionism crept in and soon what I was writing wasn’t good enough for the blog. The ideas I had weren’t interesting enough. The writing was cliched and too formulaic. It wouldn’t be useful or insightful for anybody. All the links in my goal hierarchy would disappear because I was failing to achieve anything. Which means I now have four mostly completed posts, two half-finished posts, and a long list of potential posts – but I haven’t actually posted anything. Aiming for perfection, ending up with nothing.
So, I’m writing this blog for me; to force me to finish something and post it, even if it isn’t going to set the world alight. And while it won’t be of interest to most people, hopefully it might be useful to a few who are either perfectionists themselves or live or work with one.
What is Perfectionism?
Like almost anything in psychology, perfectionism is not a single, simple concept. There are different dimensions to it and there have been different ways of categorising it. First, there is the focus of the perfectionism – self-oriented (I have high standards for my performance), other-oriented (I have high standards for your performance), and other-imposed (I think that you have high standards for my performance).
Second, it is usually split into two forms: positive, functional perfectionism and negative, dysfunctional perfectionism (click here for a nice 2×2 matrix of perfectionism by Leonard & Harvey, 2008). The former is based on having high standards for performance and is related to goal-setting and self-concordance. But the latter is being overly-critical of your own performance – never quite living up to your expectations.
I have a combination of both the positive and the negative, meaning that I set high standards for myself but then do not accept that I have achieved them. And I see that combination of perfectionism at work in a lot of academics and PhD students – regardless of age, gender or cultural background. In many ways, that’s not surprising. Science is based on creating flawless tests of your hypothesis so that if you get a result (or not) then it’s not due to methodological bias. If your test (whether it’s an experiment, survey, or other positivist method) has even a small chink in the armour then your results are invalid and you’ve wasted your time. When we’ve finished our own research, we spend vast amounts of energy searching out the flaws in other people’s work through peer review. Of course we are going to be critical of our work – it’s what we are trained to do.
Outcomes of Perfectionism at Work
But there are any number of negative outcomes for the maladaptive forms of perfectionism. There have been two excellent reviews of perfectionism in the workplace recently that highlight these – a meta-analysis by Harari, Swider, Steed and Breidenthal (2018) ; and a narrative review by Ocampo, Wang, Kiazad, Restubog & Ashkanasy (2020). Although both studies look at the two types independently (high standards versus concerns), I can still see my combination in the outcomes that emerge. Perfectionistic concerns are linked to workaholism but not motivation or performance and it decreases engagement; and both high standards and concerns are related to increased anxiety and depression. Reviews in clinical psychology show that maladaptive perfectionism can result in counter-productive behaviours (e.g., procrastination, or coming up with reasons why a blog isn’t good enough to post) or, if the goal was achieved, re-evaluating the standards (i.e., if I could achieve it then it obviously wasn’t high enough).
Perfectionism is a habit. I’ve spent numerous hours fighting the negative thoughts, triumphing over self-critical biases, only to be hit by them a year or so later. They sneak back in and become part of your thinking routine again before you even realise they’re around.
Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any research to suggest that there is a “cure” for perfectionism that doesn’t require you to be on your guard. If you, like me, fall prey to perfectionistic concerns while aiming for those high standards, then you need to keep an eye on your mind. I found Roz Shafran, Sarah Egan & Tracey Wade’s book on Overcoming Perfectionism absolutely brilliant for this. They are the leading clinical psychology scholars in the field and the book was a huge help to me (I’ve lent my copy to so many people I’ve had to replace it at least twice!). I cannot and do not try to do justice to the book here but I wanted to identify some of the tricks I’ve found most useful over the years.
Listen to what you are saying to yourself. You need to be able to pin down the rascally thoughts so that you can address their veracity.
Ask yourself whether you would have that thought about a friend or colleague who acted/performed in the way you did. For example, would you think your colleague was a failure if they didn’t have every manuscript accepted? We are usually more critical of ourselves than we are of anybody else. (Saying that, if you have other-oriented perfectionism, then ignore this tip and move to the next one.)
Ask yourself what would *really* happen if your concern came true. (Would anybody really think I was a failure if they didn’t think my blog was that interesting?) And if you find yourself trying to argue that it would be catastrophic, then move to the next tip.
Run your own experiment to see what the outcome really is. That is partly what this post is – I know it’s not that interesting to a lot of people and I’ll see what happens. If I don’t get a hugely negative response then I can use this example to…
Remind yourself (myself) that thoughts are not reality. There is any amount of noise and error that mangles, distorts and creates what you see, hear and feel. Step to the side and look at your thoughts before you accept them as “truth”.
Best of luck to all you high achievers out there!