Monday, August 4, 2008

Are You -- Or Someone You Know -- a "Perfect" Pain?

I've interviewed enough experts over the years to know what a can of worms you open anytime you mention perfectionism.

And perfectionism in the workplace? You're talking a whole caseload of worms.

Doesn't it seem kind of strange that we would complain about someone who wants things to be perfect at work? After all, we strive to do a great job in order to get raises and promotions and more stock options. So, if we moan and groan about a boss's perfectionist habits or bitch about a co-worker's perfectionist tendencies, isn't that out of balance with what we all seem to seek?

The truth is, there's a difference between perfectionism and excellence. Perfectionism on the job is anything but. It's disruptive and unproductive. For the perfectionist, it can lead to physical illness and depression. For those who must work with a perfectionist, it's annoying as hell.

The problem is that the perfectionist gets so caught up in minor details that they can't attain excellence. Instead, they become a bottleneck as they fuss, for example, with the binding of a project report instead of getting the report completed by deadline. The perfectionist boss hovers and nitpicks and agonizes over the smallest detail, preventing the staff from getting their work done.

And, perfectionists often are dangerous: Putting them in environments such as the cockpit of a jet fighter or a nuclear power plant may not be the best idea since they don't want to immediately report any mistakes they make -- and failing to report errors and then make adjustments right away can pose a risk to others.

Part of the problem with perfectionism in the workplace these days is that we are constantly being asked to measure ourselves not only for the tasks we perform every day (performance evaluations), but also how we measure up against others worldwide. We're told over and over it's a global economy, so employers compare workers to the competition -- and constantly demand better performance. This can be overwhelming for the employee or boss who already grapples with creating too many rigid rules and has difficulty not being hypercritical on every aspect of personal performance.

Instead of aiming for excellence, which can energize someone because they like what they're doing and enjoy reaching for the top, perfectionism seems to bog people down in realizing what they're missing, not what they're gaining.

Younger workers are especially vulnerable, I think, because they've grown up in a culture where they must get into the "best" schools, where they are given rewards and "good jobs" for everything from potty-training to soccer to spelling bees. When they enter the workforce, some who are used to being Polly or Peter Perfect find that attaining that ideal is much tougher. To not attain that perfect status must seem, to some of them, that they have failed. Not exactly the attitude that keeps creative juices flowing and productivity thriving.

At the same time, we burden ourselves with "rankings" that may have little to do with what we're really achieving. Immediate results gained through technology mean we can see right away if customers like a new product, if our online traffic is growing or even if we're gaining more contacts through LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. I'm not putting down this technology, but I am saying that it can cause further stress for the perfectionist who doesn't enjoy the gaining of new relationships, but rather focuses on the fact that they aren't gaining contacts as fast as someone else. Again, they focus on what they believe they've failed to achieve.

Personally, I think it's time the perfectionists let themselves off the hook. I think it's time they learned to let go of their insecurities and join the rest of us in knowing that the picture might not be hanging exactly straight on the wall, but it's still a great picture and we can still enjoy it.

For all those perfectionists out there, try some of these ideas:

* Ask someone at work to give you a signal if they think you're showing perfectionist tendencies. Once you realize what you're doing, you can stop obsessing about a detail and instead think about how much you enjoyed working with the other people on your team, or remember a laugh you shared over the project. Is it worth annoying those people or adversely impacting their hard work just because you can't decide on the font size for your part of the report?

* Learn to enjoy the success of others. Just because someone else gets a promotion or nets a big client doesn't mean you failed. Make a list of all the things to enjoy about your life right now, from a great dog to favorite books.

* Ask for feedback. One of the most difficult things for perfectionists is taking the chance they will be criticized. It's why they try and cover up mistakes, or keep their actions under the radar so no one will comment. But soliciting opinions from mentors or fair-minded colleagues can help perfectionists learn that feedback is beneficial and will help them improve. It can, they will learn, help them attain what they're really after -- great performance.

Do you know someone who is a perfectionist? What kind of impact does this person have? Do you think perfectionism is a growing problem in the workplace?


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Anonymous said...

Great post. I gave up perfectionism 8 years ago when I became a single working mom with an infant. No more time for perfection. And, I think it's helped me in business - I make decisions quicker, take more risks and don't sweat the small stuff. However, it's interesting that you mention kids becuase I've noticed that not only my own kid, but other kids, who will say if they can't do something perfect, then they don't want to do it.

Lindsey Pollak said...


Thanks for writing about this topic. As a semi-recovered perfectionist, I have to constantly remind myself that it's better to be human than perfect.

Anita said...

You gotta wonder what we're doing to the next generation of workers. My kids haven't so much as blinked in their classrooms without getting some kind of award or recognition.
You and I will be writing about them one day!
Thanks for posting.

Anita said...

I like the fact that you consider yourself a work in progress, as we all are. I'm not a perfectionist, but I am a bit of a control freak, and that's something I have to work on every day.
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anita!

Great post! Powerful, in fact!

I have had a tendency toward perfectionism earlier in my career. It all ended when I was put in a position (in a Swiss bank no less) where I had too much to do to worry about being perfect! Did this mean I didn’t agonize over invitation lists that went out to senior managers? No.

However, I quickly learned most jobs have low ROI items really don’t require crossing every “t” and dotting every “i.” Of course, it also helped to report to a less than perfect but terrific manager!

Anita said...

I've never worked for a perfectionist boss before, but I've heard people say they are very arrogant. I can't help but wonder if that arrogance isn't just misplaced angst...they're so afraid and insecure that something is going to go wrong that they drive everyone crazy with their high-handed ways. I've always considered myself very fortunate that I have never worked for that kind of manager.
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

A truly vital topic, Anita, presented with your usual insight and your customary clarity.

What you advise makes sense outside the workplace, too. To illustrate: Since age thirteen, I have been an avid golfer. Seeking the perfect round, I became frustrated, disappointed, resentful, angry, and a horrible golfer to be paired with for eighteen holes.

Several years ago I recognized that not even the top professionals shoot perfect scores. So how could I expect to?

Now, I play with gratitude that I am healthy enough to be there every Sunday afternoon, and with appreciation for the beautiful golf course and good friends who enrich my day even more.

One more application of your idea. I have the good fortune of being married to the same lovely person I started dating when she was fourteen. Both of us began to enjoy our marriage far more when we admitted that neither of us approaches perfection. How much happier we became when we not only accepted our limitations, but chuckled at them quite openly.

I haven't said all this perfectly, I am sure. Couldn't do that with twenty-five drafts and three editors. So what? I'll sleep well tonight, and expect to goof up a time or two tomorrow. As Lincoln would say, though, "The world will little note nor long remember."

Or was that Daniel Webster?

Anita said...

Thank you for sharing such lovely memories. I think you're right -- we need to realize that perfectionist tendencies hurt us in all aspects of our lives. By learning to accept ourselves for who we are, we can enjoy our work and personal lives so much more.

Anonymous said...

This is so true...I think people so often confuse perfectionism and excellence. Your post really nails down the difference.

I am always quoting my first boss who said, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Striving for quality - for excellence - is admirable and necessary. We should all be as careful as possible and commit the time, energy and resources necessary to achieve top-notch work. Knowing when you’re teetering into perfectionism is one of those “soft skills” we all need to develop!

Miriam Salpeter
Keppie Careers

Anita said...

Sounds like your boss was a pretty smart guy!
Thanks for posting...those are really good points.