The truth about perfectionism in the workplace

As well-meaning as the term sounds, perfectionism is far less than perfect. It’s actually pretty destructive and can be the invisible thread that is holding your people back from achieving their full potential.

If you’re curious as to how perfectionism could be impacting your team or hindering your own performance, keep on reading.


What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is not the same as having high standards or striving for excellence. There is such a thing as healthy striving – it’s that thing that pushes us to work harder, to pick up the phone one more time and to push the boundaries.

Perfectionism at its core is:

  • Having impossibly high standards
  • Linking our self-worth to achieving these impossible standards

When perfectionism shows up in the workplace, people procrastinate on tasks that they find challenging and end up spending too much time on minute details.

If we’ve got a project that we’re working on, perfectionism will have it bogged down quicker than a sedan in quicksand.


What causes perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a false shield. People use it because they believe it can protect them from feeling shame, or from being judged by others.

Shame is something that Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has been studying for over a decade. Thanks to her research we know that perfectionism and shame are inextricably linked.

In the words of Brené Brown, perfectionism is fuelled by the primary thought that, ‘If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgement and blame.’



How perfectionism impacts productivity.

The shame that drives us towards perfectionist tendencies gives us the first insight into how this pattern impacts productivity.

When you’re spending your workdays trying to avoid the shame of making a mistake you will take longer on a project than what is necessary, you’ll overthink and re-do work that is already of a high standard, and you are more likely to crack under pressure.

While procrastination is often thought of as laziness, in this case, it can be a by-product of perfectionism. Perfectionism also puts us in a state of anxiety or panic, and in the long-term can lead to depression.


How to kick perfectionism to the curb.

Now that we know all about this thing called perfectionism, it really is time that we kicked it to the curb.


#1: Create psychological safety

A topic that Simon Sinek explores all too well in the book Leaders Eat Last is Psychological Safety and its importance in a workplace environment.

When there is Psychological Safety in an organisation, all team members feel comfortable to contribute innovative ideas and to take creative (calculated) risks.

Perfectionists will go into overdrive if they’re in a workplace culture where small mistakes result in harsh critique and public humiliation. We’re 99% sure that your workplace culture isn’t like this, but if you have found yourself losing your cool over a couple of small things recently make the effort to manage your emotional response in future.


#2: Embrace ‘good enough’

There’s a mantra that every recovering perfectionist needs to cling to like a life raft – ‘Done is better than perfect’. Sure, it’ll take time for you to rewire your brain and create new neural pathways, but with consistent action, you’ll be able to move past perfectionism.


#3: Set a timer

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, the author of the book How to Invest Your Time Like Money, recommends setting a ‘time budget’ for tasks throughout your day.

Saunders says that perfectionists will work on a task until it’s “perfect” no matter how long it takes. To get out of this habit (because yes, it’s a habit) you should estimate how long it will realistically take you to complete tasks throughout your day, and then set a timer for yourself to get things done.

With the magic of the iPhone, we all have the equipment we need to get out of a perfectionism rut. No excuses.

If you’re directly managing a perfectionist in your organisation, take a coaching approach and share techniques like this that they can implement in their workday.


#4: Separate your self-worth from your work

Did that sentence just feel like a punch to the gut? This point hits hard but it is something that you’ll need to work on if you’re battling with perfectionism.

Realising that your worth isn’t linked to how organised your spreadsheet is, how well you completed a project and how error-less your emails are will set you free.

A more holistic view of your identity and your inherent value is needed in order to kick perfectionism to the curb. Again, this will take some time and it may even be worth getting the help of a therapist for this one.


To all the recovering perfectionists out there, we believe in you. It’s okay to make mistakes – we’re all human here – and we’d be willing to bet that there’s someone else in your workplace or in your industry that’d benefit from this blog post.

Give it a share on LinkedIn, or if you happen to be a manager looking to transform your workplace culture, send us an email. We’re here to help you make work an extraordinary experience.