This article was based on episode 266 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Members of the Modern Manager community get two months of Fast Forward membership for free. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.
Perfectionism is an amazing quality for your dedicated teammates to have, right? After all, it’s America’s favorite “weakness” as proclaimed in many interview rooms.
According to Thomas Curran, professor of psychology at the London School of Economics, perfectionism is more like a disease than a desirable mindset. Thomas is the author of a landmark study that the BBC hailed as “the first to compare perfectionism across generations” and the book The Perfection Trap: Embracing the Power of Good Enough. His TED Talk on perfectionism has received more than three million views. His research has been featured in media ranging from the Harvard Business Review to New Scientist to CNN and he has appeared on numerous television and radio programs.
Thomas says need to rewrite the script on what perfectionism really is, and how poisonous perfectionist workplaces, managers, and teammates can be. He joins me to shares here the telltale signs that you’re working with a perfectionist and how to change perfectionist pressures both individually and in your office culture at large.
THE TRUTH ABOUT PERFECTIONISM
Thomas explains that perfectionism is about having impossibly high standards for yourself and/or others. These unrealistic expectations can lead to self-defeating thoughts, self-criticism, and harsh judgments towards yourself and others when you (or they) don’t measure up to those standards.
The problem is that perfectionists tend to experience high levels of shame and guilt when their weaknesses are revealed. To avoid these painful feelings, they often avoid challenging situations. A pronounced fear of failure and judgment can cause perfectionists to withdraw from situations that would otherwise be an opportunity for growth.
In addition, perfectionists may overthink or overwork in the endless aim of reaching that golden moment of perfection. This ultimately wastes time and can even lead to poorer performance, according to Thomas’s research. At the end of the day, almost no one benefits from perfectionism, despite being idolized by so many.
TELLTALE SIGNS THAT YOU’RE WORKING WITH A PERFECTIONIST
When perfectionists succeed, they don’t feel a sense of satisfaction or delight. Instead, they experience relief that they reached the standards they set for themselves. Similarly, if you praise a perfectionist, it’s as if they can’t take in the compliment. Non-perfectionists, on the other hand, are able to experience satisfaction from compliments they receive.
Perfectionists, however, take negative feedback very personally. They feel it’s a reflection on them as a person or their abilities. Non-perfectionists have a more distanced reaction to negative feedback, and don't see it as an indictment on them but rather the situation.
Pay attention to how you and your colleagues react to praise and criticism. If you notice more relief than celebration when acknowledging success, or more defensiveness than investigation when receiving feedback, you or your colleague might struggle with perfectionism.
HOW TO CHANGE PERFECTIONISM IN YOURSELF
No matter how long you’ve struggled with perfectionism, it is possible to change your ways of thinking. Thomas offers five concrete solutions to change perfectionist tendencies you might harbor.
Rethink that idealized self image you have in your head. Is it really worth it for that figure to live in so much fear of not living up to the standards you set for it? Reconsider your perfectionist ideal. And be sure to be kind to yourself whenever things go wrong.
Zoom out to the bigger picture. Reflect on all of your accomplishments, and how far you’ve come. Remember that this latest mistake won't ruin your career. See it as just one setback that will serve as a learning opportunity for you in your continual growth.
Practice preeminent self care. Rest is crucial to productivity. We can’t work ourselves to the bone without burning out. Find rejuvenating activities outside of work like exercise, hobbies, and friends.
Avoid black and white thinking. Catch yourself when you’re feeling pressure to be perfect. Write down this harmful self-talk when it happens, and reassure yourself that things are a lot less rigid than they originally seemed.
Focus on “good enough”. Optimize instead of maximize. If you obsess about every detail, you’ll eventually burn out. There are many roads to a good result. Figure out what good enough looks like so you can move on to more important things.
HOW TO CHANGE A PERFECTIONIST WORK CLIMATE
Highly perfectionist work climates are bound up in control. They often are set in reward contingencies where performance is correlated with pay. Overemphasizing outcomes and underemphasizing development and growth in these climates leads to a sense of panic and pressure. Perfectionist managers may give “contingent regard” or positive attention to employees when they’re succeeding, and withhold positive feedback or attention when not. This highly pressured situation causes competition and worry to permeate the environment. While it can lead to short term benefits, it is profoundly damaging to your work culture in the long term.
Set Realistic Goals
Thomas suggests we build a work culture of autonomy and support. Ask your employees how they conceive of achievement and success. Work with your team to calibrate realistic goals that are personally meaningful. When employees provide input, they feel a greater sense of control over and investment in the outcomes.
Embrace Imperfections As Part of Learning
Perfectionist cultures also reproach failure. It’s important to normalize failure and give your employees space to fail. Roadblocks and setbacks are part of doing business. Ask them to share when they’re struggling, whether personally or professionally, and reinforce that you don’t expect everything to go perfectly to plan. Fostering psychological safety will help people talk about and face, rather than hide, their fears of being seen as incompetent.
Balance Work with Play
Lastly, Thomas notes that managers can encourage their team members to do replenishing activities outside of work. Taking vacation and spending time on things outside of work reminds us that we don’t need to be overly invested in work. Model in both words and action by making sure to take time for yourself to rest and recover.
While working hard is wonderful, perfectionism is ultimately a toxic ingredient. It adds unnecessary stress, and leads to avoidance, shame, and self-defeating thoughts. It causes teammates to feel competitive and insecure, battling against each other rather than working collaboratively. Managers have the power to change their employees' focus from one of impossible standards to one of growth and development. Open the discussion with your teammates about what success looks like to them, and help them set realistic goals. Be there when they inevitably hit setbacks, and give them space to address these problems with you. And make sure that rejuvenation is a work culture staple. Teams that work hard but know when to call it a day can truly thrive.
KEEP UP WITH THOMAS
Get a chance to win 1 of 5 copies of “The Perfection Trap” when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at themodernmanager.com/join.
This article was based on episode 266 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.