Those who fall victim to perfectionism at work often don’t realise how far-reaching the impacts of their behaviour can be. Here’s how HR can help.
We often conflate perfectionists with those striving to do their best, but they’re not the same.
High achievers are intrinsically motivated by their need to always do a top-notch job – a welcome quality in most employers’ eyes.
Perfectionists, however, tend to be extrinsically motivated by the fear of getting something wrong and/or being negatively judged. For this reason, their conduct often bleeds into destructive behaviour, such as overworking, being highly-critical of others and not knowing when to let go. In their view, the concept of ‘near enough is good enough’ doesn’t exist.
“There are positives and negatives to perfectionists,” says clinical psychologist Dr Barbara Rysenbry. “People who are perfectionistic are very driven. They’re very conscientious, dependable and quite risk averse.”
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Thomas J. DeLong, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School notes that a perfectionist might inadvertently lift the standards of others in the team.
Because of their fastidious nature, DeLong says they will likely pick up errors, refine concepts and present the final product in a stronger light. After all, as he says, “You can’t be a perfectionist without having your head, heart and soul in the game”.
Their difficult qualities, however, are more well known. Perfectionists are often inflexible in their thinking, Rysenbry says. It’s also not uncommon for them to micromanage, nitpick and prevent others in their team from growing.
“They’re [not always] good at delegating either, or trusting others,” she says. “They will often role model unhealthy behaviours, such as sending late night emails, working long hours, not taking breaks and having no sense of appreciation, because they don’t appreciate themselves.
“People who are perfectionistic may not understand that other people don’t hold the same views about the world.”
Different things determine if someone will be a perfectionist. It might be the result of work pressures or a toxic culture, says Rysenbry. Sometimes it’s just hard-wired into their personality.
“There are heritable aspects of perfectionism, but we can also learn it. That might have come through our childhood, what we’ve been rewarded for, or fear of disappointing others. It feels good to do well and to get that validation, but that means we [sometimes] lose the ability to self validate.”
With this in mind, we should avoid trying to stop or prevent perfectionism from occurring, as for many people, this is their normal. Instead HR should develop tools to help manage and support the person displaying perfectionistic tendencies.
The workplace impacts
Perfectionists aren’t always aware of how their behaviour impacts others.
“Sometimes people can’t see it because they’re too busy worrying about how they’re being judged or that they’re going to make a mistake.”
To address the behaviour, a good place to start could be to explore the potential risks of the perfectionist behaviour. When doing this, it’s important not to be accusatory but to come from a place of compassion. You’re shining a light on their behaviour, not shining a spotlight on them.
Perfectionists often avoid taking on new challenges or bigger opportunities and instead prefer to dwell (and obsess) in the comfort of the familiar. From an organisational perspective, this can mean they’re less likely to contribute innovative ideas. It might also mean they hold themselves back from progressing in the organisation.
A perfectionist is also likely to be highly critical of their work and overwork as a result. As HRM has discussed at length, the impacts of overworking on our physical and mental wellbeing are profound. Being a perfectionist also significantly increases someone’s chances of developing serious mental health conditions.
“People who are perfectionistic may not understand that other people don’t hold the same views about the world.” – Dr Barbara Rysenbry, clinical psychologist
So how do you know if someone is a perfectionist? It’s best to defer to the advice of an expert before you make assumptions. However, if an employee has expressed an interest in learning more about their own behaviours, you might suggest they take a perfectionism test, or ask them questions such as:
- Do you struggle to internalise or celebrate your own success?
- Are you quick to find flaws in your work, or the work of others?
- Are mistakes treated as learning opportunities or are they a reflection of your skills/worth?
- Are you constantly afraid of being judged by others?
- Do you often masquerade as having it all together when the reality is much different?
- Do you think your likeability is linked to your ability to be perfect?
- Do you become easily stressed when your environment changes?
- Are you consistently missing deadlines?(Questions above summarised from Paul Hewitt, professor of psychology, from this Inc article).
How to manage it
For those who identify as a perfectionist, there are some simple support plans that you can bake into a person’s work routine to help them keep the negative elements of perfectionism at bay. They include:
1. Help them manage their time by setting boundaries
Perfectionists might have a hard time switching off because there aren’t clear barriers that tell them to, especially when working remotely.
“You might put in a process where breaks are mandatory or outline that no one can eat lunch at their desk,” Rysenbry says. “Introduce self-care activities into your culture.”
You could also take a company-wide approach to help curb perfectionist behaviours by implementing something like the 4,5,6 rule – no meetings after 4pm, no sign offs after 5pm and no one working after 6pm.
2. Think strategically about where they belong in your business.
Perfectionism and micromanagement tend to go hand in hand, says Rysenbry. For this reason, a perfectionist might not make for an effective leader.
“Perfectionists can be very outcome focussed, which is not something that’s always in our control. But difficult managers feel they need to be in control, so they might start blaming or undermining others because they’re fearful of being blamed.”
However, they may make for highly effective subject matter experts, for example. It’s worth doing some personality profiling (with consent) before deciding where to place them in your business.
This isn’t to say all perfectionists shouldn’t be managers. It’s just good to have all the information up front so you’re able to have a conversation about how to best support them and their team from the get-go.
(Read HRM’s article on micromanagers here).
4. Recognise and validate their unique skills
Try to acknowledge the positives without encouraging perfectionist behaviours – i.e. “It’s great that you worked so hard to pull this report together. We really value your dedication. However, I can see you submitted this at 10pm. It’s important that you don’t do that again.”
Always be compassionate, Rysenbry says, because “under a perfectionist is possibly quite a vulnerable human”.
“Work is where we get our sense of reward,” she says. “It’s where we want to thrive, and get those hits of dopamine. So it can quite easily become unbalanced.”
Considering a lot of people are simply seeking validation, giving this to them might help to ease unhealthy work habits.
Rysenbry also says to encourage “excellence within boundaries”. Show them how they contribute to the bigger picture with their unique skill set, but caveat that with boundaries.
For example, you might say, “You’ve got a great eye for detail, so we’re really going to value your input on this project as we need to make sure there are no errors before we present it to the client. However, we have a hard deadline on this and I need to be fair and factor in time for others’ input, so I’ll need you to finish this by X time.”
5. Provide helpful tools and 1 on 1 support
Rysenbry suggests sitting with perfectionists to help prioritise their work, as sometimes it can be difficult for them to separate important work from not-so-important work, and they might default to panic working.
You can also help by clarifying which tasks they should put the most effort into, so they’re not expelling unnecessary energy on insignificant work.
To alleviate any stress the perfectionist’s team might be feeling, Rysenbry suggests coaching the perfectionist to develop a problem-solving mindset rather than a blame mindset if someone comes to them with a mistake or issue.
Rysenbry also suggests using what she calls a ‘worry notepad’. Here, anxious perfectionists can write down the things they’re worried about as they crop up and, at a later point in time, reexamine it to see whether these are issues they can do something about or if they are just engaging in futile speculation. This helps people gain more perspective about what is really going on.
“Humans get very caught up on what might go wrong, so we need to help people to change that and instead think about it like this: ‘If something does go wrong, we will fix it at the time.’
“A lot of perfectionism is about trying to neutralise that discomfort. They keep working, working and working, trying to stop themselves from feeling anxious or worried about things that might go wrong in the future.”
This is where mindfulness techniques can come in handy.
6. Help them to develop a new narrative
Coaching a perfectionist to think about their behaviour in a new way can be a simple yet powerful way to rewire their thinking.
In another article, HRM interviewed Dr Valerie Young, the leading expert on Impostor Syndrome. Perfectionism, she said, is a common side effect of impostor syndrome.
Young’s advice was to help these people delineate between having high standards and being a perfectionist by giving them a mantra to follow, such as: ‘Perfectionism inhibits success. Your perfectionism impacts others. Not everything deserves 100 per cent’.
You could encourage people to develop their own mantra and perhaps keep it somewhere in plain sight, so they’re reminded of it each day.
Slowing the hamster wheel
Helping someone to address their perfectionism is not an easy task; it’s likely something they (and you) will need to learn to live with.
However, by providing simple support mechanisms, employers and HR professionals can help to pump the breaks and give perfectionists and their colleagues a sense of reprieve from time to time.
With any luck, with consistent and committed support, you can start helping perfectionist employees to realise that near enough really is good enough.
Learn how to get the best out of your teams and people with AHRI’s short course ‘Creating High Performance Teams‘. Sign up for the next course on 22 September.