By: W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith
Bring up the topic of perfectionism in a room full of corporate CEOs, college presidents, or U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, and you’ll see the same knowing smiles and nods of the head. Moreover, you’ll hear thinly veiled bravado about who among them is the “most perfect” perfectionist. Many of them will extol the virtues of seeking perfection, and more than a few will include the pursuit of perfection among their notable strengths. Work environments that foster a zero-defect mentality often exacerbate this veneration of perfection.
The erroneous notion of “good perfectionism” is so widespread that many people struggle to distinguish toxic perfectionism from positive characteristics such as desiring achievement, striving for excellence, and setting high personal performance standards. Research by psychologist Thomas Greenspon indicates that it is a mistake to conflate perfection with a striving for excellence. Perfectionism and the desire to excel are not different locations on the same continuum; they are entirely different constructs. The notion of good perfectionism turns out to be a hopeless oxymoron. If perfectionists are successful at work, it is in spite of their perfectionism, not because of it.
Take those same CEOs, college presidents, and service academy students, and mention that habitual perfectionism is linked to emotional distress, relationship dysfunction, and even the diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and the smiles and bravado will begin to fade. True perfectionists know these hidden costs all too well.
The science on perfectionism as a personality syndrome reveals that perfectionism consists of two discrete elements. First, perfectionists set impossibly high — and clearly unattainable — standards for their own performance. Second, perfectionists are relentless in severely criticizing themselves for failing to achieve those performance hurdles. Ultimately, perfectionists are afraid of failure, worry about the possibility of mistakes, are motivated by a strong sense of duty and obligation (rather than enthusiasm or healthy challenge), and are preoccupied with the possibility that others will disapprove of them. Some might even be described as “working scared.”
Rather than a recipe for success, perfectionism is a “script for self-defeat,” says psychiatrist David Burns. In their quest to avoid mistakes, perfectionists stifle their creativity and avoid taking necessary risks. Self-critical perfectionists are significantly more likely to suffer from symptoms of depression (guilt, anger, sadness, low energy, lack of pleasure), anxiety, hopelessness, and even suicidal thinking.
How does perfectionism take root? Although the science is imperfect, perfectionism appears to blossom from some combination of genetic predisposition, parental behavior or modeling, and sociocultural factors. In addition to modeling emotional distress and anxiety about their own performance, there is evidence that perfectionist parents are more critical, demanding, and less supportive of their children. Perfectionist parents may use affection and approval as a reward for flawless performance. When children are imperfect or make an error, the parent’s obvious disappointment or anxiety will be interpreted as rejection.
Gender also matters. Not only are women more prone to “inherit” a parent’s perfectionism — particularly mothers — but they also encounter a host of biases and stereotypes regarding their competence, which can fuel the need to strive for flawless performance. Among these, the prove-it-again bias may be the most pernicious. To be seen as equally competent, women are often required to demonstrate their competence again and again. Men are more likely to be evaluated on potential, while women are evaluated on performance. And performance standards for women tend to be strictly enforced. This means that while men’s blunders may be forgiven or forgotten, a mistake at the hands of a woman is scrutinized and remembered, fueling a woman’s self-imposed and self-critical demands for perfection.
In historically masculine organizations and professions, women are more vulnerable to imposter syndrome. In these contexts, even the most competent and high-achieving women can harbor doubts about whether they belong and even whether or not they are deserving of their own successes and achievements. Such internalized gender bias, when coupled with external stereotypes at work, may create a perfect storm of self-doubt, self-criticism, and the setting of impossible standards for performance.
A perfectionist is a tough person to mentor or coach. The most productive and meaningful relationships are characterized by transparency, reciprocity, openness, and trust. Yet a perfectionist never lets a mentor discern areas for growth and development. Not even relative weaknesses are shared. And so a perfectionist’s desperate need to appear flawless may sabotage the value of mentoring or coaching. Even if a mentor astutely diagnoses a mentee’s perfectionism, the mentee may resist the mentor’s efforts to accept imperfection.
What’s a mentor to do? Here are several imperfect but promising strategies for helping a mentee overcome the most insidious effects of perfectionism at work:
- Check your own perfectionism at the door. Have you struggled with unreasonable personal standards and self-criticism? If so, be particularly cautious about the model you offer mentees, and appreciate the risk of — openly or subtly — endorsing a mentee’s self-defeating perfectionism.
- Focus your mentoring on affirmation, validation, encouragement, and support. Express value for your mentee, not their performance, first and foremost. When your mentee falls short or believes they have failed, help them to cultivate a sense of curiosity, inquiry, and risk taking about what went wrong and different approaches for moving forward.
- Firmly but kindly identify perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors in your mentee. Challenge them to learn to recognize and reject such unreasonable demands. You can try doing this through artful questioning, like Peter Falk in his character of Columbo (I’m confused, you’re insisting that you be perfect. But like the rest of us, you seem to be human, and of course we know that to err is human. Can you help me understand that?).
- Employ well-timed self-disclosure about some of your own mistakes and missteps. Show your mentee how you learned from each mistake, how each has been an opportunity to grow professionally, and, most important, how you continue to accept and even like yourself as a fallible human being who strives for imperfect excellence.
- Never pretend about competence you don’t have. It is often helpful to say, “I don’t know that, let’s find out together,” thereby giving your mentee permission to not have all the answers.
- Use humor often but thoughtfully. In the anxiety-ridden world of the perfectionist, empathic humor can be medicine for the troubled soul. For instance, when irrational self-demands are expressed in the form of frequent and rigid “I shoulds,” a mentor might lightheartedly say, “I suspect that all that “shoulding” on yourself isn’t getting you anywhere. Let’s try a more reasonable approach.” Or try a paradoxical intervention to humorously highlight a mentee’s catastrophizing: “Yes, I’m certain you are correct. If you don’t perform flawlessly in the meeting this afternoon, I’ll bet both of us will be fired on the spot, end up homeless, and never be able to find work again.”
- Push your mentee to be open to the very thing a perfectionist fears the most- imperfection. Elicit agreement from your mentee that they will deliberately make some minor mistakes and refuse to fix them. For instance, ask your mentee to send you an email filled with typos — and to tolerate the anxiety it may create.
- Recognize and accept that perfectionists can be tough to help. And recognize that you are a thoroughly imperfect mentor.