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How to make sure your perfectionism at work is healthy

3 Feb 2021

Sustainable career growth can depend on your ability to keep maladaptive perfectionism in check, writes Hays’ Chris Dottie.

The classic answer to the interview question ‘what’s your biggest weakness?’ is all too often, ‘I’m too much of a perfectionist’. Giving this answer is a way of converting a question that invites self-deprecation into an opportunity for self-aggrandisement.

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After all, being a perfectionist – being completely focused on ensuring everything you do is absolutely perfect – will make companies desperate to hire you, ensure you are productive and, ultimately, lead to a long, successful career, right? Not necessarily.

Perfectionism is a complex concept, much more so than many people assume. In fact, psychologists recognise that there are actually two forms of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. It turns out that one of these types of perfectionism is more conducive to long-term career success than the other.

Adaptive versus maladaptive

Adaptive perfectionists tend to understand and appreciate that it’s simply impossible to achieve complete perfection in everything they set out to achieve. Instead, they aim for a high standard of work in those tasks they know they can do well and that play to their unique strengths.

They are adaptive to the situations, experiences and projects they’re faced with at work, and tend to be comfortable in delegating duties they feel are best placed with other people. They are also more tolerant of imperfection and are less critical of both themselves and others.

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Maladaptive perfectionists have a less healthy attitude to successful achievement. These individuals will tend to berate themselves when they don’t meet their own standard.

Both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists strive for high standards. However, failure to reach those standards tends to be far more stressful for maladaptive perfectionists. This is because they are more inclined to set expectations of themselves so high that failure is almost always inevitable, resulting in self-doubt.

Fear of making an error is a key driver for avoiding those tasks they feel are complex or do not play to their strengths and interests. This can be hugely damaging both personally and professionally.

How maladaptive perfectionism can impact your work

When applied to the world of work, maladaptive perfectionism can generate a number challenges. Maladaptive perfectionists see mistakes as character flaws instead of learning opportunities. In the mind of a maladaptive perfectionist, any error – no matter the size – is instantly attributed to a failing in their fundamental character rather than something far more likely, such as lack of experience or knowledge.

Maladaptive perfectionists can also be prone to delaying actions due to a fear of failure. Tasks are then avoided and sometimes never completed, with deadlines routinely missed. This is unlike adaptive perfectionism, where time is budgeted effectively and therefore tasks are completed on time.

Maladaptive perfectionists don’t always see colleagues and team members as reliable and therefore can be known to keep them on a short leash. They also tend to find it hard to celebrate the success of a colleague, seeing it as a hindrance to their own.

Keeping perfectionism at work in check

It’s time for you to realise that no one is perfect, including yourself – and that’s okay. With this in mind, start by honestly and objectively assessing your work and personal life.

After this, ask yourself whether both are actually as full of failure as you think they are. Chances are, they aren’t. You will probably be the last to realise this and, therefore, could be inadvertently damaging your career prospects and those of the people around you.

With that in mind, here are some practical steps you can take to help keep your maladaptive perfectionist ways in check.

Firstly, recognise you have both strengths and weaknesses. Play to your strengths while looking to improve your weaknesses, rather than seeing them as character flaws. Understand that getting better at anything in life takes practice – that is unavoidable and is the mindset that must be adopted to have a successful career.

Be realistic when setting goals and be sure to manage your own expectations around what you can realistically achieve. Setting yourself impossible goals dilutes your focus on what you can achieve by wasting time on what you can’t.

Say ‘no’. Go on, try it! Saying no more often does not make you any less worthy in the eyes of your colleagues or superiors. Instead, it can enable you to succeed and add value to those things you can say ‘yes’ to.

Don’t see delegation as a flaw. You’re not expected to be able to be good at everything, that’s why you have a talented team around you. So, use them.

Finally, take time out to rest and recharge. Being physically and mentally exhausted because you are aiming for perfection all the time is a barrier to achievement. It will also allow you to keep things in perspective and have a healthy attitude to your work.

Change is possible

Having high standards and succeeding is what we should all aspire to in our work, but when our perfectionist traits become damaging, when we start to exhibit maladaptive perfectionism, it can impact negatively on ourselves and our colleagues. Recognising these traits is the first step to turning them into assets, because change is possible.

After all, even Mary Poppins admitted that she was only practically perfect in every way!

By Chris Dottie

Chris Dottie is managing director of Hays Spain. A version of this article previously appeared on the Hays Viewpoint blog.

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