Sweet Perfection - when high standards become too much

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The phrase "I'm a perfectionist" is worn as a badge of honour in professional services.  Just like sugar, it's an essential ingredient in producing high quality work for clients,  but you can have too much of a good thing.  

Perfectionism - the need to perform perfectly - can be focused in three areas:

  • On myself - I must not make any mistakes
  • Imposed on others - my team members must produce perfect work
  • Expected by others - the Partner I work for doesn't tolerate mistakes 

Organisational psychology has been extending our understanding of perfectionism to identify two different flavours that have interesting implications for burnout - that state of high stress that includes exhaustion, frustration and fear that a person can no longer perform.  After studying a large consulting firm, researchers found that one type of perfectionism helps people cope with stress while the other makes the situation worse.    

Striving to be perfect is the positive badge of honour - setting high standard of performance that translates into encouraging colleagues, inspiring others to aim high, engagement and perseverance in the face of adversity.  The macaron of the motivation world.  

Concern with being perfect creates a fear of making mistakes in both the individual and the people they manage.   Others become fearful, lose hope of being able to meet impossibly high standards and working relationships suffer.  This dessert is just too sweet for most people to enjoy and they will choose something else off the menu. 

Implications for Professionals

How can you strive for perfection without being concerned about mistakes?   Follow a recipe that include these ingredients:

  • Focusing on the problem you are solving for a client or the task you are completing for a project.  The pastry chef completing a client order to celebrate a birthday.  
  • Make an effort to build relationships with others - those connections help keep things in perspective.  The pastry chef with pastry chef friends can laugh together about their team's crazy efforts to achieve perfection. 
  • Challenge yourself to think about the positive benefits of work created rather than concern about making mistakes - for a first time attempt, the team members' work might not look good, but it sure tastes good. 

Further information

Learn more about the connection between perfectionism, burnout and coping strategies in the research by Gnilka, McLaulin, Ashby and Allen (2017) Coping resources as mediators of multidimensional perfectionism and burnout  Consulting Psychology Journal.

Make contact if you would like to see how this research has been incorporated into development workshops for fee earners and professional support staff. 

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