Managing Perfectionism in the workplace

Perfectionism is widely known as a multidimensional personality trait, and over recent decades we have seen a wealth of literature being undertaken in order to gain further understanding of both the nature and associated risks of perfectionism. What has become very apparent is that there is a clear relationship between perfectionism and a range of psychopathologies such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.

We can define perfectionism as a 'striving for flawlessness' and the setting of 'excessively high standards'. Every office has a perfectionist, in fact, research tells us that we are all perfectionistic in at least one area of our lives. Many people hold the wide belief that striving for perfection is a positive thing, when in fact, it can be extremely detrimental to a person's life. You see perfectionists often believe that no matter how hard they try or how successful they are, it will, and they will never be good enough. With this persistent way of thinking, it is not surprising that it can lead to frustration, disappointment and discontentment.

As you can imagine these feelings are very unsettling, with a significant level of dissatisfaction for the individual when even the very effort of striving to 'be the best' can fundamentally hurt their self-esteem and confidence. Of course, let's be very clear here, perfectionism isn't all bad and if you are sitting here reading this, if I asked you to reflect on your life it would probably be easy to see when it has served you well and has brought you many benefits. But if your perfectionism is beginning to do more harm than good, then maybe it is time to learn how to work with your perfectionism in a way that truly helps you to live your best life.

In both my roles as a mental health nurse and cognitive behavioural coach, I continue to come across individuals' with significant perfectionism traits which are causing them to experience increased psychological distress. This area of my work began to ring alarm bells for me, so much so that this year as part of my MSc in Occupational Psychology I decided to seek more understanding by completing my research thesis on the topic. You see, for me, the real evidence was staring me in the face on a daily basis and I wanted to do something about it. Due to the very nature of my vocation, I am privileged to be able to meet many people, hundreds of people each year who are experiencing a variety of different mental health difficulties and conditions (from unhealthy thinking to significant anxiety, depression and personality disorder). In my experience, everyone has difficulties, with some of us developing conditions if these difficulties in my view are not addressed.

Traditionally, perfectionism was seen as purely 'maladaptive' with void positive aspects. However, over time theorists have now come to believe it is a multidimensional construct with both adaptive (healthy) and maladaptive (unhealthy) aspects. I have worked with many individuals who use their perfectionism traits positively. I have seen how they are able to make clear career decisions, working towards their goals in a way which is not only positive but explorative, accepting failure. These individuals are seen as confident diligent workers, who take responsibility and get things done. In contrast, I have also worked with individuals who have become to feel overwhelmed and distressed by their perfectionism traits. These clients not only set excessive standards for themselves and others but they have developed an excessive fear of rejection, negative feedback and judgement from others. In addition, in the workplace, they are often seen as controlling and overly critical (both of themselves and other people). Sadly, these clients, despite being more than intellectually capable, are often holding themselves back from performing at their very best. It is therefore very clear, that not only is perfectionism a complex phenomenon, but it exists on a continuum for individuals ranging between normal and neurotic.

A useful way to look at perfectionism is through the eyes of Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett who developed the multidimensional perfectionism scale. According to Hewitt and Flett there are three different forms of perfectionism: Self-Orientated, Other-Orientated and Socially-Prescribed.

Self-Orientated Perfectionism (SOP) entails the demand for perfection in oneself - a striving for perfectionistic standards and the rigorous evaluation and censoring of one’s own behaviour. Often individuals associate success and perfection as the only way to feel good, with the view that no one would accept them if they knew about their flaws, including the belief that vulnerability is a sign of weaknesses. SO perfectionists often hold the beliefs that nothing matters more than being the best - if they are not the best then not only do they have no value as a human being but that they are a failure.

In the workplace, some typical behaviours you might see are:

·   Working to the point of exhaustion even if it is to the expense of your relationships and your health.

·   Excessive list-making, often scheduling life down to the minute, months and years ahead.

·   Denying mistakes that you may have made, this may include lying to others as a consequence. Mistakes are thought to be unacceptable and a sign of weakness.

·   Constantly rechecking, re-reading and redoing your work, believing they must get it right.

·   Difficulties tolerating uncertainty with increased indecisiveness including procrastination and avoiding work which may make you feel uncomfortable.

·   All or nothing behaviour, for example 'going all in' only when success can be guaranteed.

In contrast, Other-Orientated Perfectionism (OOP) involves our expectation of others. We set unrealistic standards for others that they should be perfect, including the belief that others should strive for perfection, and the stringent evaluation of their performance as a consequence. OOP is essentially the same as SOP, however, it is directed outward rather than inward. It has been suggested that OOP is associated with dark traits such as narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, therefore is better observed as a dark form of perfectionism (narcissism).

In the workplace, some typical behaviours you might see are:

·   The inability to delegate tasks and take advice or suggestions with the belief that nobody else will do the task as perfectly as them, so they have to do it themselves.

·   Micromanaging staff, including holding others to unrealistic and excessive standards and the excessive need to control with the inability to allow anyone else to make mistakes.

·   Excessive and incessant demands of others time, energy and efforts believing that if people do not meet their expectations of them then they are useless to them.

Socially Prescribed Perfectionism (SPP), the third dimension which is concerned with the perceived need to obtain, and sustain standards which are believed to be expected and prescribed by others. Often these perfectionists will worry at length about how others not only perceive them but also how others judge them. It is because of these unhelpful thinking styles that they are excessive in their need to gain approval, and can be seen to sacrifice their own needs and wants for others. The need to have other people like and approve of them is often overwhelming, causing increased psychological distress.

In the workplace, some typical behaviours you might see are:

·   Excessive reassurance seeking with an overall lack of self-confidence.

·   Constantly apologising for themselves with excessive self-doubt.

·   Going to great lengths to please others even if it's to the detriment of themselves.

We may also see behaviours outside of the workplace such as:

·   The constant need to look perfect at all times

·   The need to have the perfect body with the belief that if they do not they are not good enough

·   Inability to express and allow others to see how they feel. In their eyes, it is not okay to feel down or anxious

·   I must have the perfect partner and a relationship free of problems.

What can employers do to help those who are 'perfectionists'?

1.  Measure perfectionism in the workplace - there are many different measurement tools so that you can measure how ‘perfectionistic’ your workforce is. Using the measurements’, you can encourage your employees to acknowledge and take responsibility for their own self-development. As mentioned earlier, not everyone with perfectionist traits will experience any negative outcomes, however, some individuals may not even recognise how it is causing them to feel distressed.

2.  Self-awareness is a key part of learning to control and accept your perfectionism traits. By providing seminars and awareness-raising around perfectionism. This could include education on some of the common perfectionism tendencies, including the often conditioned unhelpful irrational beliefs and thinking styles (our red flags). This enables individuals to feel empowered to either accept or modify their behaviour in order to get a better positive outcome, leading to greater overall success and performance at work and at home.

3.  Further education around the development of tolerance and delayed gratification would be a helpful addition to help others find greater balance. Seminars which include elements of cognitive behavioural, mindfulness and acceptance and commitment techniques will also help an individual to learn to differentiate and accept thoughts and feelings, dispute irrational and rigid belief systems and recognise sabotaging behaviours.

To conclude, educating your employees through psycho-education will not only enable them to become more accepting and understanding of themselves and others, but will also enable them to be less disturbed by others around them - creating an environment which changes toxic cultures. Excessive perfectionism is a risk to us all, therefore helping your employees to deal with such maladaptive ways of thinking and behaving should be a key part of your wellbeing and performance development strategy.

This post was first published for Mad World Forum news, you can find the link here.

This article was written by Stacy Thomson, Founder of the Performance Club. She is a coach, speaker, and educator. 

The Performance Club is a mental wealth consultancy utilising psychological expertise to enhance organisation and individual mental health, performance, and wellbeing. For more information:

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