How Perfectionists Can Get Out of Their Own Way


Like any extreme trait, perfectionism can be a double-edged sword. Having high standards and being hardworking can help someone stand out in a crowded field, and their tenacity can help them improve their skills over time. And, to an extent, being very conscientious can help avoid errors.

The benefits I’ve mentioned, and a fear that any flaw will result in catastrophe, can keep people hooked on their perfectionist mindset. However, there are also significant downsides to attempting mistake-free performance.

If you’re struggling to let go of some of your perfectionistic tendencies, or managing someone who is, it can be helpful to remember the ways perfectionists can self-sabotage in the workplace. I’ll discuss five below. You’ll notice a general theme of the person losing sight of the big picture.

How perfectionists get in their own way
No matter how much it may feel like perfectionism is a helpful trait, it usually isn’t. Not every perfectionist will do all of these things, but all of them are counterproductive.

Struggling to make decisions or take action. Perfectionists are motivated to make the absolute best choice — even when doing so isn’t strictly necessary. This can lead to decision paralysis. For example, Bob wants to buy a tool that will accelerate his work, but he’s determined to find an option that has no negative reviews. He’s driven to do this, even though logically he knows that even great products usually have some negative feedback, and that the specific negative comments he reads aren’t particularly relevant to how he plans to mainly use the tool. But because of his self-imposed criteria, it takes him several weeks to choose what to purchase. As a result, he misses out on the benefits of using the tool, and the people on his team see him as indecisive and disorganized.

Worrying excessively about sunk costs. Since perfectionists tend to ruminate over even tiny mistakes, they’re strongly motivated to attempt to recover situations involving sunk costs. For example, Andrea signs up to a service with a monthly fee but doesn’t use it. She stays subscribed and sets a goal to get “double value” from the service going forward in order to emotionally recover the money she’s lost paying the monthly fee for several months but not using the service. Likewise, Marcus spends 10 minutes on the phone trying to resolve a customer service issue with an agent who clearly doesn’t have the power to correct the problem. He doesn’t want to give up without success, so stays on the phone for another 20 minutes. Perfectionists can spend too long working on marginally productive activities before moving on.

Avoiding challenges to avoid failure. Perfectionists want to feel absolutely ready before taking on challenges. This can lead to holding back from advancement or leadership roles. For example, Art thinks “Before I speak at a conference, I need to take a public speaking course” when that’s not really necessary and not something he’ll realistically do anytime soon. As a result, he misses a great opportunity.

Applying their high standards to others. For the most part, perfectionists tend to apply their extremely rigorous standards to only themselves. However, there can be some bleed-through were the perfectionist also expects others to conform to their standards. This especially applies to group projects where the end result will reflect on the perfectionist. Ranjay alienated his colleagues when he suggested a bunch of last-minute tweaks to a presentation they were preparing; the changes weren’t that major, but the team was exhausted and wanted to head home. It felt to them like he was piling on. Nitpicking colleagues or being too demanding can harm relationships and sometimes lead to the perfectionist being socially excluded because they’re emotionally hard work to deal with.

Ruminating about weaknesses, mistakes, and failures. One reason perfectionists are so strongly motivated to avoid small mistakes is because making them triggers their tendency to ruminate. Andrea ruminates over the subscription service she doesn’t use; Ranjay can’t let go of how sloppy that presentation looked. Rumination is negatively-toned overthinking about situations that have occurred (in contrast to worry that’s overthinking about situations that might occur). It intensifies emotional pain to the point it’s out of proportion to the situation. It causes irritability and feelings of depression, and can disrupt the person’s performance and relationships.

What perfectionists can do to change
If you’ve had a “that’s me” experience reading this article so far, these are some practical solutions for minimizing the downsides of perfectionistic tendencies.

Learn from successes. The idea of learning from your mistakes is likely to feel too confronting to a perfectionist, and trigger rumination. An alternative is to learn from your successes. By reflecting on the pathways that led to your successes, you’ll be able to see that you achieved a meaningful end despite not doing everything completely flawlessly or being 100% certain of success in advance. Through this process, you’ll be able to understand how you can benefit from taking a ready, fire, aim approach, where you tweak your processes and decisions based on experience rather than from exhaustive research and deliberation.

You can also identify non-perfectionistic, but successful, role models and colleagues — how are they able to be effective without succumbing to perfectionism? Observe what they do and learn from it.

Develop heuristics to enable faster decision-making and action taking. Heuristics or rules of thumb are aimed at producing good decisions most but not all of the time. They help balance the benefits of faster decision-making against any incremental gains you might get from delaying action and continued thinking. For example, a useful heuristic might be, when selecting a hotel to host a work event, you’ll define 5 criteria and pick a hotel that meets at least 4 of these 5.

Heuristics are a great method of prioritizing for perfectionists. My personal rule of thumb is “Do jobs worth $100+ before <$100 jobs.” This helps me de-prioritize marginally productive behaviors, like spending 30 mins returning an unsatisfactory low value item to a store when I could be doing something much more productive.

Ask yourself “How could I improve by 1%?” This is a popular approach that’s especially useful if you’re prone to overcomplicating solutions to problems. Because perfectionists want to be flawless, they’re typically dismissive of incremental gains. By looking for how you can improve your behavior by 1%, you’ll start to see that there are easier ways to improve than what you’re imagining. For example, someone who knows they’re too negative and that others find their attitude demoralizing might decide to start making one positive comment during each meeting they attend. This is both a 1% improvement strategy and an example of a useful rule of thumb.

Learn strategies to disrupt rumination. It’s a lot easier to tolerate making mistakes and having flaws if you know how to curb rumination. Notice when you are starting to mull over something, and ask yourself if obsessing over it is really helping you. Often, rumination feels like problem-solving — but it isn’t. If your thoughts are just going in circles, or you’re noticing that your rumination is putting you into a bad mood, let it go.

By becoming aware of the costs of perfectionism, and how it affects your productivity, well-being, and relationships (both at work and at home), you can start to mitigate this destructive habit.

https://hbr.org/2018/04/how-perfectionists-can-get-out-of-their-own-way

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