When you hear the word ‘perfectionist’, someone may spring to mind nearly instantly – a boss, colleague or even work friend whose standards have almost nothing to do with reality. They await the impossible from themselves or others, put in hours and hours making tweaks invisible to anyone but themselves, then wind up burnt out and exhausted by the end of the week.
Often these people will even advertise this trait, announcing brightly: “I’m a bit of a perfectionist”. It’s a boast of sorts, and a way to differentiate themselves as a star employee. After all, who wouldn’t want to hire someone who strives for perfection?
The answer may not be a resounding ‘yes’. Increasingly, research suggests that perfectionism isn’t a professional trait you necessarily want to advertise. It can actually negatively affect the workplace environment, alienate colleagues and make it harder for teams to get along. Forthcoming research from psychologists Emily Kleszewski and Kathleen Otto, from Germany’s Philipps University of Marburg, suggests that perfectionists might be far from the ideal, or even preferred, colleague to work with.
“If colleagues could choose between working with a perfectionist or a non-perfectionist,” says Kleszewski, “they would always prefer the non-perfectionist – the person with realistic expectations for themselves, and also for the team.”
Although perfectionism can permeate every corner of a person’s life, it’s rife in professional contexts (Credit: Alamy)
And while perfectionism can permeate every corner of a person’s life, it’s rife in professional contexts, she says. “If you ask people in what domain they are perfectionists, the most frequent answer is always the workplace. There's a lot of performance and evaluation inherent in the tasks.” Research has tended to focus on perfectionists’ actual output, rather than the effect it might have on team climate or interpersonal relationships. But it’s worth investigating, says Kleszewski: “We know from previous research that good team climate is important for mental wellbeing at work.”
The timing is right for the research: there’s evidence perfectionism is on the rise. A 2018 analysis from British researchers Andrew Hill and Thomas Curran investigated more than 40,000 college students’ answers to a “perfectionism scale” questionnaire, compiled between 1986 and 2015. The results were clear: young people are far more likely to be perfectionists than their predecessors. Recent college students, whether millennials or generation Z, perceive others as expecting more from them, while simultaneously having higher expectations of themselves and those around them.
Is perfectionism any good?
Before about 1910, ‘perfectionism’ was generally used to describe a niche theological viewpoint. In the past century or so, it’s come to describe a particular worldview: someone who avoids error on a personal crusade for flawlessness.
If given the choice, colleagues would almost always choose working with a non-perfectionist
Initially, many psychologists thought perfectionism was wholly negative and deeply neurotic. In 1950, the German psychoanalyst Karen Horney described perfectionists as being terrorised by the “tyranny of the should” – that they felt they “should” be any number of contradictory ideals, able to solve any problem, complete impossible tasks and so on. Telling a patient they expected too much of themselves tended to be fruitless, she wrote: “He will usually add, explicitly or implicitly, that it is better to expect too much of himself than too little.”
In the decades since, academic opinion has become a little more conciliatory. On the one hand, perfectionism seems to be closely correlated with mental-health difficulties, including depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Professionally speaking, it can equate to burnout and stress, as expecting the impossible may mean setting yourself up for failure. On the other hand, perfectionists have been found to be more motivated and conscientious than their non-perfectionist peers, both highly desirable traits in an employee.
In a best-case scenario, perfectionists successfully channel their high standards into doing great work – while cutting themselves and others some slack when things don’t go perfectly.
Even with all of the downsides of perfectionism, perfectionists have been found to be more motivated and conscientious than their non-perfectionist peers (Credit: Alamy)
But such a balance isn’t always so easy to strike. In Kleszewski and Otto’s study, perfectionists and non-perfectionists were asked to rank potential colleagues for desirability, and to describe their experiences of getting along with others at work. Perfectionists were overwhelmingly described as highly able, but hard to get along with, while non-perfectionists topped the ratings for social skills and how much people wanted to work with them, even if they weren’t considered as competent. Perfectionists seem to notice a little coolness from their peers: the study showed that many described feeling excluded or on the edge of team dynamics.
These days, most researchers agree that perfectionism comes in many different forms, some of which may be more harmful than others.
Perfectionists seem to notice a little coolness from their peers: one study showed that many described feeling excluded or on the edge of team dynamics
One well-accepted definition splits perfectionists into three groups. You might be a “self-oriented perfectionist”, who sets very high standards for just yourself; a “socially prescribed perfectionist”, who believes that the acceptance of others is dependent on your own perfection; or an “other-oriented perfectionist”, who expects flawlessness from those around them. Each type has their own strengths and weaknesses – and some are more harmful to a team dynamic than others. (Kleszewski and Otto’s study showed that perfectionists who limit their quest for excellence to their own work are far easier to get along with than those who expect a lot of those around them.)
A vast meta-analysis of 30 years of studies, conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology, explored another commonly-used classification system: “excellence-seeking” and “failure-avoiding”. The first kind of perfectionist fixates on achievingexcessively high standards; the second is obsessed with not making mistakes. While both groups exhibited some of the downsides of perfectionism, including workaholism, anxiety and burnout, they were especially true of the “failure avoiding” perfectionists, who also were more likely not to be “agreeable”.
Perfectionism can equate to burnout and stress, since expecting the impossible may mean setting yourself up for failure – at work or otherwise (Credit: Alamy)
Even though perfectionists may be undesirable colleagues, perhaps surprisingly, there was no relationship between perfectionism and job performance for either group, says researcher Dana Harari, who worked on the meta-analysis. “To me, the most important takeaway of this research is the null relationship between perfectionism and performance,” she says. “It's not positive, it's not negative, it's just really null.”
Your perfectionist colleague may be setting themselves up for failure – especially when it comes to getting along with others. Research suggests that by throwing all their weight at one task, they may inadvertently neglect others along the way, or miss the value of maintaining positive relationships with their co-workers. People who manage perfectionists, meanwhile, should encourage them to invest a little less in their work and a little more in their own wellbeing.
And if you’ve read this with a sinking sense of guilt about your own workplace behaviour, go easy on yourself. No one’s perfect, after all.