In the fifth of my series on workplace myths, I’m turning my attention to perfectionism. I’m sure you’re all familiar with this hackneyed exchange:
Interviewer: “What are your weaknesses?”
Candidate: “Well sometimes I can get a bit perfectionist about my work”.
Job done. The candidate smiles inwardly knowing that a) what they really meant was “sometimes I’m just too damn good at my job” and b) it’s definitely seen as an allowable weakness.
In reality, that response deserves a follow up question, which rarely gets asked – “What strategies do you have in place to manage your perfectionism?” Because perfectionism can be a very serious weakness indeed. It’s one of the shadow side risk factors I look for when assessing candidates and I really want to know how well people can control it. But let’s go back to basics…
What drives perfectionism?
Essentially perfectionism is an anxiety-management strategy with two drivers. The first is the drive to be perfect in order to be seen as an acceptable human being. Making mistakes may lead to criticism or rejection, which is very scary. So, to avoid this fate, the perfectionist seeks to avoid ever doing anything wrong or submitting a piece of work which is not the very best it could possibly be. They may not even know what’s behind it; people internalise the judgements of parents, teachers, peers and society in general until it becomes second nature to check and double check and to tinker with small details.
The second driver is that the world is a messy and chaotic place, over which we have very little control (particularly right now. I’m writing this at the end of yet another week of Brexit indecision). This is anxiety-provoking, so it can be reassuring to have as much control as possible of things within your remit. The world may be falling apart, but if all your filing is in order, you may feel a little calmer.
I have some perfectionist tendencies. I mostly have them under control but I’ve learnt to recognise when I’m in their grip. Usually it’s when I’m under pressure and have multiple priorities to juggle, but find myself obsessing about the background colour for a PowerPoint presentation or finding the perfect stock image to illustrate an article.
Why is it a problem?
Perfectionism causes all kinds of problems. I know when I’m in the grip of it, I lose sight of the bigger picture. There’s a huge risk of spending too long on something and being unproductive. I confess I’m a bit annoyed that the photo above has a black border that I didn’t notice when I downloaded it. I’m stopping myself from looking for another one, but it’s taking some willpower. It’s also very hard to prioritise if everything has to be done equally perfectly. Perfectionism goes hand-in-hand with self-criticism and, at the extreme, impacts on people’s mental health. It has been linked with depression, eating disorders and even suicide.
The impact on others
Problems with perfectionism go beyond the individual, particularly if you are a perfectionist manager and especially if you are quite emotionally volatile. An anxious, emotionally-reactive perfectionist has all the potential to become one of those control freak managers that no one wants to work for.
Some perfectionist managers anxiously fuss over details, getting in people’s way. Others quietly correct people’s work without even telling them. But some get frustrated and angry. They may not even recognise that they’re anxious. But what drives that frustration if not fear of losing control and appearing vulnerable? Anger often masks anxiety. The combination of unrealistic expectations and emotional volatility is pretty potent – and not very pretty.
Managers with these tendencies generally know this but rationalise it away – the organisation demands high standards, they’re just making sure people meet them. It’s good to stretch people out of their comfort zones. People won’t deliver if you don’t keep a close eye on them etc etc.
The gender gap?
I might be wrong here, but I sense a split in the way male and female managers explain away this kind of behaviour. I must stress that this is totally unscientific, based on personal observation and subject to my own internal biases. But here’s what I’ve observed:
Men: “I don’t suffer fools gladly”
This is often worn as a badge of honour and can sound quite positive, albeit in a challenging way. “I’m damn good at what I do, I set very high standards and I don’t suffer fools gladly. People know what to expect when they work for me”.
Try re-framing that as “I am openly contemptuous of people who don’t live up to my expectations” or “I will lose my temper, perhaps publicly, if you make a mistake”. It doesn’t sound quite so positive now. But it does sound powerful. Men I’ve met with these tendencies are aware that it would be better if they could control their tempers and rein in their control freak side but I don’t pick up a real sense of shame about it. For women, on the other hand, things are different.
Women: “That’s not really me”
I’m sure there are women who are quite happy to wear the ‘don’t suffer fools gladly’ badge. But we (all) have different expectations of women; we’re meant to be softer. But that same fear of not being in control of every tiny detail, of things not being 100% perfect, can cause perfectionist women to become hyper-critical and lash out in the same way as men do. They just seem to feel more guilty about it.
So I’ve encountered female managers looking for reassurance that their staff still like them after they’ve behaved incredibly badly. Or warning people that they will behave badly in the future: “I’m an absolute bitch in the run up to a deadline”. The subtext is “but look how nice I am now. This is the real me and I’m so nice that I’ll warn you that this other me, who’s really horrible, will show up sometimes. Sorry about that, but just remember, I’m really nice”. For me, this is akin to an abusive husband claiming that the real him is the one who loads the dishwasher and buys flowers, not the one who might hit you at any moment. That’s not how it feels on the receiving end.
The importance of kindness
The key difference between those who strive for excellence in a healthy way and those who succumb to unhealthy perfectionism is kindness, particularly self-compassion. If you can aim high but not become self-critical when you fall short, you’re more likely to succeed and to do so without sacrificing your mental health. You’re also likely to be more understanding when others fail to meet your standards. So if you’re wrestling with perfectionist tendencies, start by being kind to yourself and then remember to extend that kindness to others. And if you’d like some support managing your perfectionism, I’d be happy to have a chat: email@example.com