Perfectionists can appreciate, with a certain sense of bitterness, the fruitless toils of Sisyphus. Struggle as they might to be perfect, they just never manage to attain this lofty goal. Working hard most certainly has value, but doing your best is one thing, while trying to be perfect is a whole other mess.
Perfectionism also happens to be the favorite go-to answer for the cliché interview question, “What is your biggest weakness?” Just ask any recruiter. Along with “I’m a total workaholic,” it is by far the most common response. What candidates are trying to convey to a potential employer is, of course, that they are nearly flawless; their only problem is they work so darn hard and try to be perfect in whatever they do. Perfectionism is, indeed, an ”admirable weakness,” but if both recruiters and candidates knew what our research reveals about perfectionism, they would seriously reconsider.
We analyzed the responses of 1,206 people who took the Perfectionism Test, and based on the results, divided the sample into three groups: Extreme Perfectionists, Moderate Perfectionists, and Low Perfectionists. Our study results reveal that while the determined efforts of Extreme and Moderate Perfectionists do pay off in some cases, Low Perfectionists appear to be happier and better adjusted overall. Not only that, but with the exception of academic performance, perfectionists fared much worse than non-perfectionists on all other success indicators.
Here are some highlights from the study:
In terms of academic performance:
- 30% of Extreme Perfectionists had straight A’s in school, 42% had good grades (mix of A’s and B’s), and 28% had average grades.
- 27% of Moderate Perfectionists had straight A’s in school, 44% had good grades (mix of A’s and B’s), and 30% had average grades.
- 21% of Low Perfectionists had straight A’s in school, 39% had good grades (mix of A’s and B’s), and 40% had average grades.
In terms of work performance:
- 43% of Extreme Perfectionists had a good work performance rating, 43% were satisfactory, and 13% were poor.
- 44% of Moderate Perfectionists had a good work performance rating, 47% were satisfactory, and 9% were poor.
- 51% of Low Perfectionists had a good performance rating, 44% were satisfactory, and 5% were poor.
When dealing with set-backs:
- 92% of Extreme Perfectionists are hard on themselves when they fail, compared to 77% of Moderate Perfectionists and 39% of Low Perfectionists.
When reacting to time limits:
- 67% of Extreme Perfectionists have missed a deadline at work because they felt a project wasn’t perfect enough to hand in yet, compared to 53% of Moderate Perfectionists and 46% of Low Perfectionists.
The implication here isn’t that working hard and trying your best is pointless or unhealthy; in many cases, perfectionists will produce better quality projects, but it can come at a cost. The bottom line is that while low perfectionists may not always be the top performers, they don’t fear failure, they learn from but don’t make a big deal of mistakes, and they don’t make being the best their top priority. And as a result, they are happy with themselves and have better self-esteem. So while it’s important that employees strive to do their best in whatever endeavor they take on, moderation is essential. Often times, “good and on time” is better than “perfect but seriously late.” Success should be a pleasant by-product of one’s journey through life – not as a raison d’être.
If you’re struggling with your own issues with perfectionism, or have a tendency to expect perfection from your employees, here are some tips to tame this beast:
- Set realistic goals. If you resolve to stop world hunger in five years and climb Mount Everest, then you'll probably end up disappointed. These goals may sound a little extreme, but the point is that if you set your sights too high, your fall will be harder. You can challenge yourself reasonably, though. Strive to do that extra mile on your daily jog or increase your sales rate by 2%. Even if you don't accomplish everything you set out to do, the fact that you tried is something to be proud of.
- Don't make assumptions. If your boss doesn't compliment your work, don't assume that he or she is dissatisfied with it. Rather than stew in self-doubt, ask: "What did you think of my work on that last assignment?" Remember that the way you interpret reality may not come close to the truth of the situation.
- It's not always black or white. In fact,most of the time, we are dealing with shades of gray.Don't approach a challenge or goal with an "all-or-nothing" attitude (e.g. saying something like "I have to get this promotion or else I'll never be satisfied with my job"). If you only see the outcome as a success or failure, you're already sabotaging yourself. As long as you learn from your mistakes, you automatically turn the outcome into a success.
- Set a good example. "Do as I say not as I do" really doesn't cut it. Rather than make demands of others, why not show them? For example, instead of criticizing an employee for making a mistake, try showing him/her how to avoid it in the future. Remember that the people around you will never be able to meet your standards if you only look for what's missing.
- Think of your image. Imagine being around someone who constantly nitpicks and criticizes every mistake you make. We've all met one person like this and probably didn't enjoy being around them very much. Unless you change your attitude and lower your standards, you may end up alienating others.
- Consider the other person’s self-image. Setting unreasonable standards for others and then judging them harshly when they don't live up to them is downright unfair. It also impacts their self-esteem and can impact their psychological and physical health. Imagine how it makes others feel when you treat them this way.