The perils of perfectionism

April 1, 1997
Richard G. Ensman Jr.
Pharmaceutical Representative

Anything worth doing is worth doing well." You've heard that well-accepted business axiom time and again.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well." You've heard that well-accepted business axiom time and again.

There's only one problem with that quote: It's not true. Many things are worth doing well, of course, but not everything. And people who strive to do everything well often end up trying to do everything perfectly. They confuse excellence with perfection and reach for goals that cannot be achieved.

Perfectionism is a real problem in today's high-achieving business world. Far from attaining success, perfectionists often end up focusing on trivial details, alienating the people around them and even suffering physical illness.

Let's examine the traits of perfectionists. As you read these brief descriptions, ask yourself if any of them fit you.


•Â Perfectionists set impossible goals. As soon as a perfectionist achieves one goal, he or she quickly sets another. Eventually, these goals become a never-ending rat race.

More significantly, priorities become misplaced: Minor details become goals in their own right, and the perfectionist gives them as much attention as the truly significant goals. The result: The perfectionist may become obsessed with details, and upset when even minor things don't go right.


•Â People around the perfectionist withdraw. The perfectionist, in a misguided attempt to do everything right, places many demands on the people around him or her.

Perfectionists may frequently meddle in the work of their peers and subordinates. As a result, others may delegate work upward to the perfectionists and become afraid or anxious around them.


•Â Productivity suffers. The perfectionist has difficulty accepting things out of order, so he or she may issue edicts and instructions that govern every detail of work life.

A perfectionist attempts to control the most trivial of details. The result: No one around the perfectionist wants to take initiative, and the perfectionist becomes increasingly isolated.

At the same time, a perfectionist often becomes preoccupied with competition, even in non-competitive situations. They may compete with themselves and with deadlines.

When tougher and tougher expectations make top performance impossible, a perfectionist may stall on important tasks, waiting for the "right" time to begin them. Perfectionists may appear indecisive and build reputations as procrastinators.


•Â Stress and illness result. The only time perfectionists are truly excited and satisfied is when they begin a task. But they rarely achieve great pleasure in reaching success.

Perfectionists may lack a sense of levity, have difficulty accepting praise and may be unable to relax. Even in their personal lives, they may become jittery when not performing "worthwhile" activities or solving problems. The result: Tasks that were once enjoyable become dreary and addictive. Stress results and, at times, even physical illness.

Better strategies

If you find traces of yourself in these descriptions, it might be time to rethink the way you work each day. Five strategies in particular may help:


•Â Watch out. If you're a recovering perfectionist, the best thing you can do to combat this condition is to set realistic goals. That's easier said than done, of course, so ask the people around you to objectively evaluate your goals - and limit those goals to a few important objectives.


•Â Plan. Sound planning begins with a belief that outcomes matter more than the flurry of activities that precede a task's completion. So take time to develop a simple strategy plan whenever you embark on a new project.

Identify the steps and activities that can best be handled by other people. Develop a list of activities that are not truly essential to the project's completion. Schedule specific blocks of time for the high-priority activities that will lead to successful outcomes.


•Â Delegate. To the greatest extent possible, delegate activities and objectives to others. Equally important, stay away from those folks once you've delegated. While coaching is important, remember that excessive involvement in their efforts is dangerous.


•Â Listen. Perfectionism is usually a lifelong trait, ready to rear its ugly head at any opportunity. Learn, then, to notice the subtle signals from other people that should concern you: the furrowed brow after an intense conversation, the tremor in the voice of a subordinate or peers who seem to avoid you. Even better, find a colleague or job coach who can offer you feedback on your actions, and help you remain sharp and effective.


•Â Trust. If you're a perfectionist, your long-term objective should be to learn how to trust other people, yourself and your ability to motivate - and, perhaps most important, to trust that fate won't often allow failure just because your personal standards aren't met.

Perfectionism can rob people of the vital energy and joy that makes work satisfying. At its worst, perfectionism can be a business killer. If you're teetering on the brink of perfectionism - or if you've already fallen victim to this aggravating condition - spend some time learning how to appraise and control your perfectionist tendencies.

The more skill you develop in controlling your actions, the more newfound energy you'll discover - and the more energy you'll unleash in the people around you. PR