Nobody’s perfect

You might think perfectionists make great hires, but the truth is perfectionism often hinders — not helps — the bottom line. Here’s what you need to know about fastidiousness and how to push past it.

Darrin Ambrose says he noticed perfectionism creeping in during the early days of his career. As one of the youngest employees at the firm where he worked as a general accountant, he says the best way he knew to prove himself was to aim for perfection. “I was spending so much time and energy on things that didn’t matter. I wanted my work to reflect my top skills, making sure everything was perfect — deadlines, formatting, numbers.”

While perfectionism is commonly (yet incorrectly) used to refer to someone who simply has high standards (some call this “good perfectionism”), clinical perfectionism can be much more debilitating, and the affliction affects more people than you might think, says Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough.

At its core, perfectionism is, for some, the need to be painstakingly meticulous. It can also present inother ways. Mostly, perfectionists set extremely high standards — arbitrary “just right” standards — for themselves. They often experience fear of failure and judgment — an overestimation of what will go wrong if they fail to meet their set standards — and extreme anxiety about the uncertainty that comes along with everyday life. These folks typically perceive that nothing short of excellence is acceptable and that catastrophe may ensue if everything isn’t faultless. “It’s something that’s on a continuum,” Antony says. “The amount of perfectionistic tendencies can vary, and so can the helpfulness of those tendencies. Some benefit from their tendencies; some are paralyzed by them.”

According to experts at Anxiety BC, perfectionism can make you anxious, frustrated, angry and depressed. Perfectionists are plagued by black-and-white thinking (for example, If I need help from others, I am weak), catastrophizing (If I make a mistake in front of my coworkers, I won’t survive the humiliation), probability overestimation (My boss will think I’m lazy if I take a couple of sick days), and what experts refer to as “should statements” (I should be able to predict problems before they occur). Folks who fit into this category are also big procrastinators — they have a tough time finishing their work and are overly cautious (it can take them hours to finish a task that should take 20 minutes, for example). They agonize over details — their to-do lists are elaborate and they can rewrite the same document or email over and over to make it perfect.

Ambrose says he noticed some of these qualities in himself, especially frustration, fear and anxiety. He says perfectionism played a role in making him feel the need to ensure that everything he produced at work showed he was a highly capable accountant. He felt compelled to format all reports identically, to make them “aesthetically pleasing and uniform.” He needed to submit work at exactly the minute it was due. He did all of this on top of making sure the content was correct and over-referenced. The driving force was his perception that, to accurately represent himself as an accountant, he needed to make his work look very specific.

Today, Ambrose is an accounting instructor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, and with more experience and years in the workforce under his belt, he says he can spot perfectionist tendencies quickly, and doesn’t allow himself to fall into old habits. “It was only later that I realized I wasn’t making the best use of my time,” he says. “It got to the point where I didn’t even want to go to work because it was exhausting.” Ambrose eventually saw that, in the long run, he was being less efficient, spending more time on visual aspects as opposed to creating the best content. “I thought attention to detail and perfectionism were the same things, and only as I matured in my career did I realize that they are very different.” He also felt he missed out on some key aspects of working in a team environment. “I ended up not spending time collaborating or coming up with the best content based on group work.”

A need for control is another common trait among perfectionists, says Patrick McGrath, the clinical director for the Center for Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in Illinois. “These people may want to control what others think of them. They fear judgment. The perception is that, if they follow such high standards, they leave no chance for anyone to think negatively of them.”

WHEN PERFECTIONISM HURTS

The truth is, the constant need for perfection can do more than contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. A Swedish study published in 2013 found that more than 70% of parents of boys and young men who had committed suicide described their sons as having placed exceedingly high demands and expectations on themselves. And a 2010 study from researchers at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, showed that people who were found to have high perfectionism scores in a questionnaire had a risk of death that was 51% higher than others.

Perfectionism can do significant harm at the office when it affects managers or executives in the C-suite. For example, it may cause leaders to take on much of the work and not delegate, fearing others can’t possibly do their work correctly. Other perfectionists may work at all hours, doubt the work they submit or resent others for what they perceive to be negative judgments held against them.

Ambrose says perfectionism can also cause managers to push their desire to be flawless onto staff. “Trying to meet the standard of perfection for an accountant, especially an accountant who is new to the profession, is a very difficult goal to reach,” he says. “This can lead to stress, frustration and burnout while trying to hit this target.”

Finally, when they’re not achieving the precision they’re looking for, those seeking flawlessness may simply start avoiding situations — such as giving presentations or working on client acquisitions — where the level of meticulousness they expect is simply out of the question. In extreme situations, perfectionists may quit their jobs. If they can’t be impeccable, why bother?

BEING PERFECT VERSUS DOING YOUR BEST

You don’t have to be a perfectionist to give your all. That doesn’t mean mediocre should be sufficient; it just suggests that working hard, putting your best foot forward and making every effort to do a good job — whether you’re assisting a new client, compiling research for a higher-up or composing an email — won’t have the same adverse effects that trying to achieve perfection can. And that’s a bonus: compared to perfectionists, employees who don’t fear imperfection are less rigid, defensive and critical, they have less stress, more realistic expectations and are more con dent and open to collaboration.

When it comes down to it, flawlessness in the workplace — and, well, in life — is simply unsustainable and unattainable.

“I understand and I see the signs,” says Ambrose, who tries to make sure his students know the difference between aiming for their personal best and aiming for constant perfection. He admits he still gets tunnel vision. “Sometimes I have to remind myself not to get consumed. I’ve been able to let my hair down a bit and enjoy aspects of life.” One lesson this reformed perfectionist learned is that time is the only currency that matters. “I was going through life missing more things than I wanted. My family would be having dinner while I tried to align PowerPoint colours into one theme. Or my friends were having birthday parties while I uniformly formatted Excel spreadsheets.” He now places much more importance on the content of his work and the satisfaction of his clients. “Don’t let a task consume you; don’t go into that vortex. Just do your best and spend time on things that fulfill you.”