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Unproductive by Perfectionism

Have you ever found yourself staring at the computer screen, stressing about every word you wrote, then deleted the whole thing and started over because it just wasn’t good enough? If you have, you’re not the only one. As J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D. and Lorraine F. Lafferty, Ph.D. wrote in their book Perfectionism: A Sure Cure for Happiness: “Perfectionism is an illusion and its reality is unhappiness.”

There is a common misconception taught to us from a young age that being wrong is unacceptable and we shouldn’t make mistakes. Perfectionism means that we need to be viewed as flawless by others; however, this fear of failure can stop us from mundane activities such as a quick email, or submitting a report that never seems to be up to standard. The issue with that thought is that others may not have the same unrealistic expectations that we believe they do. Assuming others will tear our work apart and nit-pick on every word choice we make is not beneficial. In fact, perfectionism can create unproductive individuals, leaders, teams, and organizations.

Some perfectionistic attitudes and behaviours may be viewed as desirable, such as individuals that try hard to prove themselves, are impatient with their own errors, actively looking for challenges, persistent, and try to be the best in all things. This is not to be confused with a motivated individual that is achievement oriented; there is a clear distinction between wanting to improve and needing to be perfect.

Perfectionists may experience several negative effects from this mode of thinking, including burnout, impatience, and anger. Other issues include low tolerance for other’s mistakes, being overly attentive to detail and de-emphasizing feelings. As a leader, this problem can put a strain on personal and professional relationships, people will stop coming to you for help/advice, and you can be seen as unfriendly, even hostile. Other people will assume you need no help, that you’ve got it all together, and you have the risk of being emotionally unavailable. There is no doubt that this perfectionistic behaviour and attitudes have a negative effect in subordinates. An organizational culture high on perfectionism halts creativity and creates an unwanted culture that cultivates fear. Employees do not feel comfortable voicing concerns and, although some level of perfectionism is linked to short-term effectiveness, research has shown diminishing returns in the long-run.

The first step to self-improvement is realizing and accepting that change needs to be made. The LifeStyles Inventory™ and Leadership Work Styles™ are powerful tools that can help by shedding light on our thinking styles and behaviours, the impact those are having on ourselves and others, and creating an action plan that will guide us to be less perfectionistic. Before exposure to these tools, I thought my perfectionism was a good quality to have and I was proud of it. Friends and family joked around that I was too meticulous and fussy, but I never thought much of it. After taking the assessments and seeing the real impact perfectionism was having on my professional and personal life, I realized it was time to make a change and my regret is not having done it sooner. It is a work-in-process, and it definitely doesn’t happen overnight; but I feel a weight is slowly being lifted off my shoulders and, overall, I’m happier.

Sources include: Human Synergistics LifeStyles Inventory™; Group Styles inventory™; Organizational Culture Inventory™; Perfectionism: A Sure Cure for Happiness, by J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D. and Lorraine F. Lafferty, Ph.D.