Perfection Isn’t Perfect at Work: Here’s Why

Photo by Anton Darius | @theSollers on Unsplash

Most of us view success myopically.

It is a common bias.

We often view the end result (a successful book, project or product) — and hold misconceptions that the path to that end was without flaw.

However, most paths are ripe with snags and changes in direction.

They are imperfect. So are the people that forge those paths.

If we all could accept our own imperfect paths (and lose the expectation to become perfect), we’d likely approach our careers differently. We’d possibly accept more risk — or enter uncharted territory more often. However, we are often more critical (and unforgiving) when we consider our own mistakes.

If you’ve been told you are a “perfectionist”(or suspect this trait)  — you’ve likely experienced this and more. You may push yourself too hard, offer yourself scathing reviews when errors occur and fret at the notion of being evaluated. These scenarios can become wrought with frustration. (Perfectionism can have deep roots. If you feel you the need for clinical help, please seek out a trusted therapist).

Here are a few questions and answers concerning perfectionism applied to our work lives.

Is perfectionism affecting my work negatively? You would know better than anyone if perfectionism is getting in the way — and the signs can be lost in our everyday lives. If you’ve become overly risk-adverse because of the fear of an error or being evaluated — or you frequently experience “analysis paralysis”, it may be time to tackle this head on. Just know that working to achieve task perfection is a little like repeating yourself in conversation. Nothing new is added to the mix. Try to move on and test your results of recommendations to break the ice.

Is there a pattern? Often we have certain “triggers” that bring on perfectionistic behaviors. Some of us feel perfectionism creeping in when we are embarking on a new path or challenge. Others when we might be compared to others. Be aware of your unique responses and attempt to intervene.

Is perfectionism related to procrastination? You bet. When we put things off to avoid being judged or evaluated, they live side by side. This can lead to even more frustration.

Can it hold me back? That depends — and trust in your environment plays a strong role in this dynamic. For example, if you never share a promising idea because it is not perfected, you (and your team) could be missing out on key opportunities. The experts on creativity at Pixar encourage their employees to share ideas much sooner in the creative process and this can lead to feeling uncomfortable. But this also allows contributors to build on ideas together. Attempt (within reason) to share what you have to offer. Start small and don’t use perfection as the lever.

Can I get it under control? The answer is yes. However, be patient with your progress — as old workplace habits often die a long protracted death. Learning to accept some level of failure is likely a part of this process. (Perfectionism can be stubborn and toxic.) Be mindful of irrational fears and try stop the cycle when you see it begin to spin. Learning to let go of the reigns can be challenge — and you must be kind to yourself if you hit a dead-end.

I always think of Sandra Bullock and her very public “fail”in 2010. She might have hidden from her public embarrassment, when she won the infamous “Razzie”for her work in All About Steve. (The same year she won the Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side.) Instead she chose to approach her imperfect performance with levity and humor. Somehow she drew upon her past successes for courage. (I don’t think I could have mustered the courage).

Her Razzie award acceptance speech was a defining moment in self-acceptance. (See it here).

I’d say that was a winning strategy.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist.  She is the Director of Organizational Development at Allied Talent. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program, her posts on workplace topics have appeared in Forbes, The Huffington Post, US News & World Report and The World Economic Forum.

4 thoughts on “Perfection Isn’t Perfect at Work: Here’s Why

  1. A great article that really hits close to home. A little bit of accountability will do us some good, but perfectionism (for me) is toxic, and it ultimately determines job satisfaction from experience. Thanks for the interesting read!


  2. It’s good to read an article that paints perfectionism in a wider circle. One certainly feels the singular failure when held back by perfectionist symptoms.


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