by Justin Standfield
It’s officially Summer here in the UK, which means that it’s that time of year when TV and radio commercials go into overdrive with their use of the ‘P’ word. That is: “perfect”. Every other ad extols the virtues of the perfect Summer, the perfect body, the perfect soundtrack to your perfect Summer, the perfect barbecue, perfect skin, the perfect way to unwind this Summer and the perfect holiday. Needless to say, their product or service is the perfect way to achieve…well, perfection. Countless research studies tell us that the impact of media pressure to achieve perfection is damaging our mental health and wellbeing more than ever, especially among school age children who are the most prolific users of social media. So what’s with all this aspiring to be perfect?
Perfectionism is generally defined as a personality trait that’s characterised by excessively high personal standards and harsh self-criticism. In the workplace, I’m always fascinated by people who make it known that they strive for perfection in everything they do. I believe that my fascination springs from understanding their attraction to the ideal (insert thing or situation), while at the same noticing that every perfectionist I’ve ever met seems less than content. Perhaps that tension – as I see it – is the very thing about perfectionism that gives them a buzz. In her book, ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’, Brené Brown puts it like this:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”
I’d guess that the drive for perfection is a relatively common trait, based on my experience of working in a range of industry sectors and countries. Maybe you would self-identify as a perfectionist? If not, the chances are that you know someone who is a perfectionist: perhaps a colleague who’s frequently gripped by the fear of making mistakes or maybe a member of your team who is excessively self-critical following some poor performance. These are some of the tell-tale signs of a perfectionist, which can even be observed in children; psychologists agree that certain aspects of perfectionism are innate preferences that we’re born with. Unsurprisingly, they’ve also found that upbringing and early life experiences shape some of the tendency towards perfectionism.
It occurs to me that some of this nurturing might continue beyond childhood and into our working life. In all workplaces, the immediate line manager has the potential for significant impact on the working styles and thought processes of their people. Of course, there are times when a perfectionist leadership style is appropriate – for example, take the ‘Pacesetting’ style from Daniel Goleman’s leadership style model. In his own words from ‘What Makes A Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters’, he says:
“The hallmarks of the Pacesetting leadership style sound admirable. The leader sets extremely high performance standards and exemplifies them himself. He is obsessive about doing things better and faster, and he asks the same of everyone around him. He quickly pinpoints poor performers and demands more from them.”
However, Goleman cautions leaders to use this style sparingly, for a short period of time and only in specific situations. If used frequently, the Pacesetting leadership style causes morale to drop, the team climate is damaged and people can feel overwhelmed. Being subjected to unrelenting demands for perfection at work causes an unbearable amount of stress, which has been linked to everything from heart disease to irritable bowel syndrome. Interestingly, perfectionists are also more likely to have chronic or unexplained fatigue and pain syndromes like fibromyalgia, according to research published in the Review of General Psychology in 2014.
From my own experience, I can see an opportunity for more organisations and leaders to be clear that perfection is not a must-have component of success. Instead, they might want to encourage and support their employees to develop attributes such as resilience, diligence, flexibility and perseverance. In recent years, Google has decided to break with tradition and reward failure in an effort to reduce the anxieties that can stifle performance. You can read more about it here on the BBC News website, but the signs are that this is proving to be a productive attitude shift: not just for innovation, but also staff wellbeing. That said, if I was having brain surgery tomorrow I’d be totally comfortable to know that the surgeon was a perfectionist – but when I consider the longer term negative effects of perfectionism (such as burnout), I’d also be curious to know how he or she looks after their physical and mental wellbeing.
Some steps that I recommend we can take as leaders to reduce the negative impact of excessive perfectionism are:
- Start with ourselves first if we’re part of the problem – relax our over-controlling perfectionist urge and reward ourselves for doing a ’less-than-100%-perfect’ task.
- Encourage and enable our team members to achieve more balanced working lives.
- Involve team members in coming up with simple ways to de-pressurise the working environment without compromising on performance or customer experience.
- Acknowledge the problematic nature of perfectionism – talk about it!
- Challenge this undesirable trait by role modelling a better way and letting people know that there is always learning in mistakes.
- Use coaching skills to help committed perfectionists find ways of maintaining their high standards while at the same time dialling down their self-criticism.