Everyone knows a “perfectionist,” whether a friend, family member, or oneself. In fact, the desire to be perfect is widespread and research indicates that the rate of perfectionism has been increasing over the last three decades (Curran & Hill, 2019).
Perfectionism is a personality trait that revolves around striving for flawlessness. Individuals high in perfectionism will set inflexible and excessively high standards for their performance that they will pursue compulsively. If these standards aren’t met, they may believe they have completely failed the task altogether. However, achieving these standards often results in the urge to set higher standards for next time.
Based on this description, it may appear advantageous for employers to hire individuals who are high in perfectionism. These employees seem to be highly driven and successful people. However, researchers have discovered that perfectionism is not all good.
TWO TYPES OF PERFECTIONISM
Research on perfectionism distinguishes between two dimensions of the trait. Excellence-seeking perfectionism centers on the achievement of high standards. Individuals high in this dimension impose these standards on themselves and failure to meet these standards lowers their self-worth.
Alternately, failure-avoiding perfectionism conveys a strong aversion to failing and not meeting expectations. Individuals high in this dimension are preoccupied with fear of failing to meet the high standards that they perceive are expected of them by others.
People may be high in either or both of these dimensions. In the latter case, individuals would strive to meet their own standards while fearfully perceiving that perfection is expected by others. These dimensions of perfectionism are important to delineate, as prior research has found that each is differentially associated with crucial antecedents and outcomes in the workplace.
PERFECTIONISM AND WORKPLACE OUTCOMES
In order to synthesize existing research on perfectionism in the workplace, researchers (Harari, Swider, Steed, & Breidenthal, 2018) conducted a meta-analysis, which is a statistical combination of many previous studies. They examined the relationships between excellence-seeking and failure-avoiding perfectionism with organization-relevant factors.
Excellence-seeking perfectionism was strongly associated with higher levels of engagement, motivation, and conscientiousness. However, this dimension was also moderately associated with higher levels of stress, anxiety, and the nefarious workaholism, which can be detrimental to an employee’s well-being.
Failure-avoiding perfectionism was also strongly associated with indicators of poor well-being, such as higher levels of burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression. However, contrary to excellence-seeking perfectionism, this dimension was associated with lower levels of conscientiousness and engagement.
Interestingly, neither excellence-seeking nor failure-avoiding perfectionism were significantly associated with job performance. This indicates that perfectionism alone neither impairs nor improves performance in employees.
IMPLICATIONS: IS PERFECTIONISM AT WORK GOOD?
The authors conclude that “perfectionism is likely not constructive at work.” They indicate reasons like poor well-being and a lack of increased job performance to explain why the detrimental effects most likely outweigh any benefits.
As a result, striving for flawlessness is a society-held belief that we need to re-evaluate. The researchers suggest that individuals high in perfectionism should aim to alleviate problematic symptoms relating to anxiety and burnout by working on their standards and expectations. Organizations should try to manage these employees using methods that will mitigate perfectionistic tendencies. For example, managers should avoid excessively monitoring employees high in perfectionism, in addition to communicating realistic standards and tolerating mistakes.
Harari, D., Swider, B. W., Steed, L. B., & Breidenthal, A. P. (2018). Is Perfect Good? A Meta-Analysis of Perfectionism in the Workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(10), 1121-1124.
Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429.