The double-edged sword of perfectionism at work


Perfectionism at work is not always a bad thing, but it is important to find the right balance according to what is required. — dpa

Just one last check before submission. Or maybe another thorough review is in order?

Completing an assignment can take forever for perfectionists.

The boss only asked for a short list and is wondering what’s taking so long.

Meanwhile, the perfectionist is stressed for lack of time, polishing and re-polishing a detailed report that has stretched to several pages.

Perfectionism isn’t always a flaw. As with many things, the dose makes the poison.

But spending days elaborating and fine-tuning what’s supposed to be a short list is inefficient and a recipe for time pressure – too high a dose, in other words.

“You don’t have to try to shed your perfectionism,” says career coach Bernd Slaghuis, co-author of a book on how to work better.

For him, a perfectionist is someone who is conscientious and loves order and structure, “which are actually strengths”.

The drivers of perfectionism are important, says Jochen Mai, a career consultant and workplace trends expert based in Germany.

Perfectionism is good when it’s driven by the desire to always give your best and deliver top-quality work, he says, but “it’s bad when it’s driven by a fear of making mistakes or being criticised”.

So how do you strike the right balance?

After all, perfectionism doesn’t come with a modulator that you can turn up or down.

“Perfectionism is a habitual behaviour that you develop over years or decades through your upbringing and experiences,” Slaghuis notes.

You can only change it, he says, by consciously and consistently working at it.

If you don’t have much time to complete an assignment, he suggests asking yourself whether every detail really needs to be 100% perfect, and what the consequences will be if every detail isn’t.

“Ideally, you’ll discover that it’s sometimes better to go with a product that’s 80% perfect,” he says.

Perfectionists often have trouble working in a team as they can be demanding of their colleagues, as well as themselves.

Instead of seeing perfectionists as slow and forever fault-finding, Slaghuis says their colleagues should consider what they appreciate about them – that they always make sure the team delivers good work, for example.

“A team depends on a variety of strengths,” he emphasises.

If you have a perfectionist on your work team, he advises asking what stresses him or her, offering support, or perhaps explaining that experience has shown less-than-perfect work to sometimes be perfectly acceptable.

People who know themselves to be perfectionists shouldn’t try to hide it in job interviews.

“You should mention your weaknesses – talking your way around them is nonsense,” remarks Mai, who says you’re deluding yourself if you think you can fool the interviewer.

Rather, you should deal with the trait in a self-reflective, constructive way.

“You could say, for instance, ‘I tend towards perfectionism, but I understand why and am working on it’,” he suggests.

Slaghuis advises perfectionists to express the wish early on that supervisors make their expectations clear, e.g. whether a handwritten note suffices for a list or a detailed report is required. – By Elena Zelle/dpa

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Mental health , stress , anxiety , workplace


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