It pays not to be too perfect

Some antidotes to the perfectionist streak

When working on complex code or putting together an important project, many would think being a perfectionist would be a good trait to have.

However, it just may be that perfectionism isn’t always an asset in the workplace. A Psychology Today article says perfectionism actually reduces your job performance and causes depression and illness.

Another bad effect of perfectionism is that it can alienate your colleagues, the article says.

Those conclusions come from psychologist J Clayton Lafferty, after he looked at the results of a survey of more than 9000 managers and professionals.

"‘Perfectionism has nothing to do with actually trying to perfect anything’ Lafferty says. ‘It is about illusion, the desire to look good.’”

The article says perfectionists often get hung up on meaningless details and spend more time on projects than is necessary, causing their productivity to suffer.

This conduct can turn into compulsive behaviour, with people making make sure everything is perfect by checking and rechecking. This can cause unnecessary anxiety, distraction and frustration, according to another article on Bluesuitmom.com. Lindsey Townsend writes that if workplace checking is interfering with your productivity, “it's time to get a handle on it”. It could be that you are just a conscientious checker, but if your compulsions interfere with completing tasks — “especially if your routines are frustrating or angering the people you work with" — then you might have an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“The bottom line is: ‘Are you doing something you don't want to be doing … or thinking something you don't want to be thinking? That's the real test of OCD,’ points out psychologist Steve Reed.”

The article contains a list of behaviours that, according to Reid Wilson, author of Stop Obsessing: How to Overcome Your Obsessions and Compulsions, show you might be a workplace checker. These include feeling the urge to repeatedly check if you have forgotten something important (such as notes in your briefcase or slides for a presentation) or repeatedly checking if you have made a mistake such as misplaced numbers on a spreadsheet or typographical errors in a report.

The article says that if you fit the description above, you should take some time out (during downtime) to think about how many times a “normal” person would check an item and then aim for that.

The next steps are to gradually reduce the number of times you check; accept your worry thoughts; be willing to tolerate some uncertainty; and finally, expect to feel anxious, and take care of your anxious feelings.

The Psychology Today article says the people who suffer most from perfectionists are perfectionists themselves.

“Their self-induced stress leads to a cornucopia of health problems, from headaches and chest pains to depression and impotence.”

But those aren’t the only problems caused by perfectionism in the workplace. The Psychology Today article also says another issue is that perfectionists might cover up errors in an attempt to maintain a superhuman image.

“That's why, contrary to expectations, perfectionists are ill-suited to working in risky environments like nuclear reactors or high-tech fighter planes, where mistakes must be shared at once to avoid catastrophe.”

Interestingly, problems can also ensue when perfectionists enter the corporate world, because they might not be able to distinguish between what’s achievable and what isn’t — a major factor in business effectiveness.

“[Lafferty] cites one major company that nearly engineered its own demise by setting sales goals so high that it failed to meet them for 16 consecutive years.”

Want to know if you’re a perfectionist? Check out this test on the BBC’s website, which gives a scale showing how much of a perfectionist you are.

And if you find you are a perfectionist, you can seek help at Perfectionists in Recovery.

Mills is a Dunedin writer. Contact her at kirstin_mills@computerworld.co.nz

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