The four hidden dangers of perfectionism—and what to do instead

Chasing that perfect report, or getting the presentation exactly correct might be doing us more harm than good says Lynne Cazaly. It’s time we try to make it just ‘good enough’.

The drive is on in workplaces to deliver good value, top quality and efficient service. This pressure to make what we’re doing ‘perfect’ seems to just be one of the basic expectations of the job these days. But despite these noble goals at work, we’re experiencing some of the highest levels of stress, depression, anxiety and mental illness than ever before.

What’s going on? Why are we so uptight at work and unhappy about it? It might be worth us looking at something that doesn’t usually get much attention, because it’s our ‘favourite flaw’ and that’s the trait of perfectionism. The danger with perfectionism comes about because, as PhD researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill say, perfectionism is “An irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” They gathered data from over 41,000 people and found that perfectionism is increasing, at alarming levels and say there are three key types of perfectionism—Self-oriented (when we set unrealistically high standards for ourselves), Societal (when we perceive that society expects us to reach a certain standard) and Other-oriented (when we have high standards for others).

All three are on the increase with the second, Societal, increasing by 33 percent over the duration of their study. Because of our drive to make things better, perfect, faultless and flawless, we might actually be creating more problems at work.

The horror of the perfectionist boss

Many people can recall the horror of working for a perfectionist boss who wasn’t happy with anything, nothing was ever good enough and reports, presentations and projects go through endless corrections. Often it’s only a tiny change like a word here or the typeface, type size or line thickness. We might be worrying about things that don’t matter so much. Here are four of the hidden dangers of perfectionism at work:

Longer hours aren’t better
If you’re regularly putting in extra hours trying to make something ‘good enough’ or ‘better’, you could be wasting your time. Working harder just causes burnout, sleeplessness, stress and anxiety and doesn’t deliver on the quality we hope for. Harvard Business Review research revealed that extra work hours just make us feel better about the quality, they don’t really impact the quality.

Too hard on yourself or others 
We might be too harsh, expecting high standards and being disappointed or moody when things aren’t ‘perfect’. But perfection doesn’t exist, so reaching it is impossible and the pursuit doesn’t deliver the feelings we wish it would.

Conflict and tension
Unnecessary conflict and tension can crop up at work because of uncertain or ill-defined standards. We often talk about deadlines, but we don’t talk enough about the standard or quality that’s required. As a result, people work endlessly, doubting what they’ve done is ‘good enough’, when no standard has even been discussed or agreed to.

No party for no success
Some perfectionists don’t celebrate the wins or the achievement of milestones because they’re terribly disappointed they didn’t meet their own self-imposed standards. While everyone else is high-fiving, they might be berating themselves near the doughnuts because nothing was ‘good enough’.

Rather than pursuing perfect it’s better to define and aspire for ‘good enough’ and to get feedback and responses from peers, clients or customers to make sure you’re on the right track.

If you want great progress, put your ideas out there sooner, test and get feedback and iterate. It’s the new way of working. It’s how to truly identify and deliver good value, great products and efficient services. You can do the same. Tone down the perfectionism; it’s harming us all and our abilities to work well and get a good night’s sleep.