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Managing Perfectionism In The Workplace

11 Dec 2012

Every office has at least one perfectionist – that person who clings to rules and procedures and expects everyone to follow his or her lead. Perfectionists hold themselves to high standards, are diligent workers, and can help reign in an unruly workplace. However, they can also be viewed as controlling, overly critical, or as micromanagers in the eyes of subordinates and colleagues. When tired, bored, or under increased pressure, these perfectionist qualities can become detrimental to their performance, negatively impacting their own work and that of others. 

Traditionally, psychologists and business experts alike have viewed perfectionism as a purely maladaptive construct. Research conducted by Jeff Foster and Steve Nichols of Hogan Assessment Systems, however, challenges this perception and provides an in-depth exploration of the results of perfectionism in the workplace. Their findings, which are described below, show that perfectionism may result in both positive and negative outcomes.

Three types of perfectionism

One must first define perfectionism to understand it and its effect in the workplace. According to Hewitt and Flett’s 1991 publi¬cation Perfectionism in the Self and Social Contexts: Conceptualization, Assessment, and Association with Psychology, there are three main forms of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented, and self-prescribed.

Individuals who display self-oriented perfectionism tend to have unrealistic standards for themselves. In striving to meet these standards, they can be overly self-critical and focus excessively on their own flaws. Although this pattern of behavior can produce negative consequences, researchers have also found that the high personal and organizational standards exhibited by those with high perfectionism are also associated with healthy experiences. Those displaying self-oriented perfectionism are good at making career decisions because they are good at self-appraisal, goal selection, making plans for the future, and problem solving. Self-oriented perfectionism is often indicative of several other positive qualities, such as high self-esteem, self-efficacy, resourcefulness, perceiving controls, adaptive learning strategies, strong academic performance, and altruistic social attitudes. However, when under increased stress, perfectionists can become caught up in the details and sacrifice productivity, turning these advantages into crippling career derailers.

Other-oriented perfectionism describes individuals who have unrealistic standards and expectations about the abilities of people around them. People who display this characteristic are often overly evaluative of others’ performance. They not only hold others to unrealistic standards, but also may be overly critical when these standards are not met. Other-oriented perfectionism has been associated with an elevated level of assertiveness, which can damage interpersonal relationships both inside and outside the office. The positive side, however, is that other-oriented perfectionists believe others are capable of achieving success and will push them to do so.

Socially prescribed perfectionism results when individuals believe others have perfectionist expectations directed at them. Unlike characteristics associated with self-oriented perfectionism, where an individual maintains high standards at all times to avoid letting him- or herself down, the socially prescribed perfectionist is motivated by a fear of disappointing others. These individuals believe they will be valued only if they produce nothing less than perfect work. Although individuals who display characteristics associated with socially prescribed perfectionism can be astute at knowing what is expected of them, this tendency often leads to the feeling that they must always do better than before.

The impact of perfectionism in the workplace

Whatever the cause, perfectionists tend to be overly concerned with mistakes, which can lead to both positive and negative outcomes. Hogan studies the impact of personality on workplace performance using the Hogan Development Survey (HDS). The HDS is an assessment that indexes behavioral tendencies that can emerge and negatively impact performance, especially when an individual is fatigued, ill, stressed, bored, or lacking social vigilance. The HDS measures these tendencies along 11 scales: Excitable, Skeptical, Cautious, Reserved, Leisurely, Bold, Mischievous, Colorful, Imaginative, Diligent, And Dutiful. Hogan measures perfectionism using the HDS Diligent scale, which assesses the degree to which a person is picky, critical, or overly conscientious. Low scores on this scale suggest that individuals are relaxed, tolerant, and willing to delegate. High scores suggest that individuals are resistant to change, may micromanage others, can become overly stubborn and slow to make decisions when under pressure, and tend to focus too much on irrelevant details while ignoring the overall goals of a project.

Hogan’s research shows that perfectionists’ meticulous nature may be useful and even important in many situations. They are likely to be good with details and strictly adhere to the rules. They are strong role models who strive to uphold the highest standards of professionalism in their workplace and display positive characteristics, like being orderly, attentive to details, and fastidious.

In contrast, perfectionists often have trouble prioritizing their work and believe that every task needs to be done equally well, even when that is impossible. In their quest to ensure everything is done right, they often have trouble delegating responsibilities, which in turn deprives their subordinates of the opportunity to learn and grow. Their resistance to change suggests they will rarely be a source of true innovation. At their worst, perfectionists can be fussy, particular, nit-picking micromanagers who deprive their subordinates of any choice or control over their own work. Such behaviors alienate their staff members and may cause them to refuse to take any initiative, instead waiting to be told what do to and how they should do it.

Understanding perfectionists is the key to managing them

Perfectionists have plenty of qualities that make them assets to any organization. However, the same attributes that can be strengths in most situations can be disruptive when an individual is overwhelmed or facing increased stress. Understanding that perfectionism is a complex characteristic that can lead to both positive and negative outcomes in the workplace is a crucial step in managing a perfectionist’s performance.

When negative behaviors do emerge, the results can be disastrous. Because perfectionists tend to stress over minute details of every task, they limit their productivity. And the negative aspects of perfectionism don’t just affect one individual. When perfectionists micromanage their colleagues, or fail to delegate tasks, the productivity of an entire department or company can be impeded. As a result, it is up to the manager to recognize who among their staff displays perfectionist tendencies and ensure those individuals receive the proper coaching and development to maximize their performance.

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