Thought Leadership

“I’m a Little Bit of a Perfectionist” – The Dark Side of the Drive for Flawlessness

By Fred Harburg

All candidates know the job-interview question is coming: "Can you tell me about one of your weaknesses?" And they know enough not to respond with anything along the lines of, "I am a serious procrastinator who rarely finishes an assignment." Alternatively, "I am an egocentric narcissist who wants to get ahead at the expense of others." Often, they’ll go with a variation on this “safe” response: "I'm a little bit of a perfectionist."

However, if they or their interviewers more clearly understood the meaning and consequences of perfectionism, they would never give such an answer. Because it’s not safe at all.

I've answered interview questions in a similar manner. As a recovering perfectionist, I know that I'm not alone. Most of us believe saying we are perfectionists demonstrates that we have high standards, are diligent workers and care about the quality of the work we do. Those are all commendable traits. However, perfectionism — an unrelenting drive to meet impossibly high standards — serves none of those ambitions effectively. Moreover, there is a big difference between embracing high standards and harboring a crippling desire for perfection.

My psychiatric colleagues consider perfectionism to be a behavioral disorder stemming from a rigid concept of acceptability and worthiness. There is an active link between perfectionism and sensitivity to shame, and that link is triggered when one feels ashamed about failing to measure up to some idealistic notion of flawlessness. It manifests itself in a desperate need to be outstanding in all aspects and endeavors.

In the extreme, the consequences of perfectionism are dire. Working for a perfectionist often comes with punishing micromanagement, a demand for perfect answers, decision and action paralysis, procrastination, and demoralization of direct reports and colleagues. Nothing is ever good enough for the perfectionist. It is particularly insidious when one fails to distinguish between what is indispensable and that which is merely desirable. When we give a high priority to a task of low value, perfectionism becomes a time- and resource-robbing thief.

Perfectionism doesn't stop by eroding performance at work. Perfectionists are predisposed to harsh judgments of spouses, friends, and partners. No one enjoys the judgment of others. Compulsive zealots see themselves as "results-oriented," and they are — to the detriment of focusing on what causes results and to the expense of relationships. Leaders and parents have a primary responsibility to create an environment in which others grow in capability and performance. A preoccupation with a child's grades rather than with their efforts is the cause of countless challenging moments in family relationships. Helpful feedback grows efficacy: the confidence that stems from a clear understanding of how specific efforts produce predictable results. Helping others discover these cause-and-effect relationships and choose practical actions is beyond the scope or interest of a perfectionist.

Perhaps the most harmful consequence of perfectionism is harsh self-judgment. Ruthless criticism goes beyond faulting others; instead, it targets the perfectionists themselves. Again, I refer to my psychiatric colleagues who have identified an extremely high correlation between perfectionism and depression. When we fail to measure up to unrealistic standards, the consequences can be devastating. Talented professionals can fall into a deep morass of performance decline and social isolation that infects much like a disease. Perfectionists are particularly susceptible to the well-documented “imposter syndrome.” The International Journal of Behavioral Science reports that at some period in our lives, 70 percent of us fear we will be exposed as a fraud despite the evidence that we have essential competencies. While researchers first thought that the imposter syndrome disproportionately affected women, further studies indicate that it affects men and women on an equal basis.

Imposter syndrome strikes perfectionists with particular venom, especially concerning intelligence. When perfectionists compare themselves with Einstein, Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Newton, they fall desperately short. However, why would anyone compare themselves with these intellectual giants? Such distorted comparisons seem legitimate to a perfectionist.

Overcoming perfectionism begins with acknowledgment. In many ways, this is the most straightforward but most challenging step. Trusted and respectful advisors, colleagues, and friends can help us recognize that perfectionism is hurting us. When someone we admire acknowledges that they too have this problem, it can be particularly helpful. When my business partner described his struggles with perfectionism, the positive impact on me was profound. As we discussed it, it became apparent that this is an almost universal challenge. Even people who seem to have meager standards often harbor an underlying desire for extraordinary excellence.

The second element for overcoming perfectionism is to change your internal narrative regarding excellence. Most behavioral experts agree that self-talk, inside stories and mental frames that we hold about issues such as perfectionism drive our behaviors. We behave in ways consistent with our deepest beliefs regarding fundamental values. Engaging in what a cognitive behaviorist would call reframing, challenging the inconsistencies and flaws of logic embedded in distorted narratives is essential for making a change.

We need not be captive to perfectionism. By acknowledging its grip on us and its consequences, by reframing our narrative regarding excellence versus perfectionism and by establishing simple, deliberate practices, we can defeat it. In your next interview, consider saying, "I used to be a bit of a perfectionist, but let me tell you how I overcame it."

Fred Harburg is a Clinical Professor of Executive Education at the Kellogg School of Management and former Executive Director of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute. He teaches in the Energizing People for Performance and The Leader Within Executive Education programs. Previously, he served as the Chief Learning Officer (CLO) and President of Motorola University, CLO at Williams Energy, and Senior Vice President for Leadership and Learning at Fidelity Investments.

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