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The myth of perfectionism

Perfectionism pushes you to keep working hard till the final outcome. Yet, it has a downside too

Published: May 27, 2019 02:46:28 PM IST
Updated: May 27, 2019 03:27:22 PM IST

The myth of perfectionismImage: Shutterstock

'Perfectionism drives you towards excellence. Excellence is the path to success.' Do you shower your teammates with these words of wisdom every now and then? You practice what you preach and you are pitch-perfect in your work. 'Practice makes man perfect', is your motto. You check the work of your teammates for the slightest imperfection and insist on multiple rounds of redo in case of any flaw. You beam with pride that you are a high-strung perfectionist and you wear your 'perfectionism' as a badge of honour.

Does this describe you accurately? But have you ever thought that perfectionism can have blind spots too? You may wonder why; Doesn't perfectionism drive us towards great achievement? Doesn't the flawless quest of perfectionist energize high performance? You will get these answers if you explore it beneath the surface.

Every workplace has at least one perfectionist boss or teammate. They are addressed by a variety of labels, such as 'workaholic', 'fastidious', 'micromanager', 'uptight', 'demanding', 'pernickety', to name a few. 'They often dot the i’s and cross the t’s.' You will hear this description in the 'office dialogue'. However, if you see through researchers' lenses, you will delve deeper into the behaviour of perfectionist. 

No doubt, perfectionism pushes you to keep working hard till the final outcome. Yet, it has a downside too. Many a times, this downside overshadows your performance and creates a blind spot. You may not be aware about this blind spot as it stems from your unconscious biases. You turn a blind eye to the evidence underpinning perfectionism and cling to some false assumptions. Let’s begin checking the facts right away.  

Myth- Work should be done perfectly.

Fact- There is no perfect (?) criterion of perfect work. Perfectionism is a very subjective concept. Perfect work from your point of view can be imperfect from the points of view of others. Perfect work is a pipe dream. Our performance is based on internal factors, such as our state of mind, and external factors such as resources, instruments, support from others and so on. It is next to impossible to expect all internal and external factors to line up in such a manner to result in a perfect behaviour. You can insist on excellence, but not on perfectionism.       

Myth- Perfectionism is a pursuit of high standard.  

Fact- Perfectionism and standards are two independent and distinct terms. Standards are the set of quality norms that are established at time. They can be reviewed from time to time and can be changed according to the situations. Hence, they are not perfect. Perfectionism on the other hand implies inflexibility. It operates on the assumption that there is some enduring form of ultimate standard. Isn't it fanciful?  There is no gold standard for perfect work.  You can achieve high standards without being perfect.

Myth- Perfectionism is a road towards successful leadership.  

Fact- Successful leadership calls for high tolerance. If perfectionism takes you on a grip, you become less tolerant towards yourself and others. Whatever great work your teammate does, it is not perfect in your eyes. Perfectionism compels you to remain discontented and disparage others. In hindsight, when it comes to your own performance, you will always feel a sense of underachievement and inadequacy. Hence, instead of paving the way for leadership, perfectionism forces you to take a creaky walk.  

If you plunge further into perfectionism, you will discover that perfectionism can be inward, outward or a mix of both. In terms of Hewitt & Flett’s research, they are called self-oriented, others oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism respectively. However, in any of its form, you have to be mindful of its red flags.

If perfectionism is inward, you keep high demands from yourself for precision and push yourself hard to fulfil them. You are highly critical about yourself and in the case even slight mistake, you condemn yourself. ‘‘I'm such an idiot, I shouldn't have done so... how could I be so stupid?’’ Your repentant heart would often wear sackcloth and ashes.

If perfectionism is outward, you demand from others to be perfect. You are hypercritical about them and you run high on them if their work does not live up to your expectations. You back them into a corner if they commit any mistake. You yell at them, ‘’I can’t stand you anymore!’’ and make them feel stupid. You take a hit with team morale and become a morale extinguisher. 

If perfectionism, is a mixture of both, you indulge in perfectionist behaviour to win others' approval. You adhere to perfect work and in order to avoid criticism by others. You kick up a fuss that others are demanding and nitpickers and you are subject to others’ perfectionist expectations. You often operate on a ‘victim mode’ by believing that you fall into a trap of putting on a perfectionist show. You wallow in self-pity.

In a nutshell, perfectionism in any form will leave you or others as suffering souls. Needless to say, strike off perfectionism from your dictionary. Fight against all the myths with all your might. Last but not the least, bear in mind that you don't have to do this with perfection!  

The article is contributed by Prof. Dr. Anjali Joshi, Associate Dean & Professor, Human Resources, S.P. Mandali’s Prin. L.N. Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research (WeSchool). Her interests lie in Organisational Behaviour, Performance Management, Managerial Counselling, and Competency Management. Views are personal.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research (WeSchool)]

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  • Malavika

    Another studied article that makes you think and helps you be more understanding with others and also with yourself. Thanks.

    on May 31, 2019