Managing perfectionism in the workplace

Posted by Winsborough on 2018-08-08 20:52:47

Managing perfectionism in the workplace

What qualities make for an ideal employee? This is the question often faced in a workplace where recruitment mistakes have burned the leaders’ suite before, resulting in the need to make the focus on team performance a top priority.

Perfectionists might, at first glance, seem to meet those demands. A person with this characteristic tends to expect the best out of themselves and everyone around them - while this might sound like a positive trait, it has its pitfalls as well.

In this blog, we take a closer look at perfectionism and its impact on the work environment, as well as how perfectionists can grow beyond this constricting behaviour.

Perfectionism and its various types

As a personality trait, perfectionism is generally seen as a strong concern with high-quality work, a low tolerance for imperfection, and a habit of holding oneself and peers to very high standards. There are three main types:

  •  Self-oriented perfectionists expect more of themselves than is practical, and find fault with themselves when they fall short. While they are meticulous and self-reliant problem solvers, they often get bogged down by details.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists tend to hold others to a too-high standard, and have little patience when their peers fail to perform as expected. Even while setting a high bar, they can alienate and discourage colleagues.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism is the mark of a person who believes that others demand great performance from them, and is motivated by fear of letting them down. This type of perfectionist has a keen awareness of standards, but often puts more and more pressure on themselves with every achievement.

Each type of perfectionist has good qualities, but can quickly harm their own workflow and peer relationships when their ‘dark side’ behaviours emerge.

How perfectionists are seen by peers, managers, and themselves


Research shows some interesting patterns in how people evaluate perfectionism, depending on who the raters are.

  • Peers tend to see perfectionists as driven and great at taking initiative, but less competent in the areas of leadership, making financial decisions, managing risks and appreciating diversity. 
  • Supervisors largely agree with peers, but see perfectionists in particular as being less competent at motivating their colleagues, negotiating and handling stress.
  • Perfectionists themselves tend to agree with both peers and supervisors on several points. They know they don’t handle stress well, and accurately rate themselves highly in taking initiative, being dedicated to service and organising. But they overestimate their performance in key areas like financial assessments, leadership and risk management.

All of these findings confirm an important truth: perfectionism in the workplace is a mixed bag, with both positive and negative outcomes.

How perfectionists can be managed and developed

Even perfectionists can get better. That’s not to say they should produce better work, but should instead be coached to gain mastery over the derailing tendencies they show under stress.

Here are some key areas where coaching and development makes a real difference:

Acceptance of ‘good enough’ work. Perfectionists struggle to realise that all they do cannot be perfect, and achieving excellence in everything makes little sense. These workers can become better performers by seeing those truths clearly and refocusing on the bigger goals at hand.

Delegating work to peers. Perfectionists must learn to value peer contributions. Having a rigid, ‘only I can do it’ attitude and being critical of others only leads to disappointment, failures and low morale. Delegating, on the other hand, lowers stress and lets in fresh perspectives.

Prioritising tasks. Time is a limited commodity, but perfectionists often let details slow them down. They must learn to prioritise crucial tasks over minor ones, and to focus personal efforts where they will yield the biggest returns.
Overcoming the tendency to dwell on mistakes. Perfectionists often spend far too much time obsessing over past failures or imperfections. They can become more efficient by learning to 'let go' of the past, reflecting on how they've achieved success before, and improving their skills in small, easy-to-manage increments.

All in all, managing perfectionism at work requires two big steps. First, understand how intricate the trait is. You should see it as a characteristic with many layers, both good and bad. Then, you can address derailing behaviours through personalised coaching, so that your perfectionists become the efficient model team members they’re uniquely capable of being.

Looking to develop perfectionists into effective, competent leaders? Talk to us.

Topics: Organisational Performance