Perfectionism and teams: The perfect storm?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting everything to be the best it can possibly be….or is there?

While it doesn’t sound like such a bad thing on the surface (after all, it contains the word "perfect"), perfectionism can make people overly critical of their own performance and may make it harder for them to deal with their own missteps as well as difficult situations in general.

Unfortunately, having unattainable standards takes a heavy toll on people’s mental wellbeing. That’s why it’s not shocking that people with high levels of perfectionism tend to be more stressed (and become more exhausted) than people who have more realistic expectations. In high-pressure situations, people who are more perfectionist have higher levels of cortisol, too.

Too much perfectionism is especially toxic under pressure.

A healthy drive for excellence (sometimes confused with perfectionism) can be motivating and drive your team to overcome adversity and achieve success. Unhealthy levels of perfectionism, on the other hand, can make work (and everything else in life) an endless evaluation of accomplishments. And it’s especially bad news because people who tend towards perfectionism focus more on avoiding failure (a negative orientation).

What causes perfectionism?

Internal pressures like the desire to avoid mistakes and harsh criticism tend to drive perfectionism, and perfectionist tendencies have increased significantly among young people over the past 30 years.

Signs someone on your staff has fallen into perfectionist tendencies:

  • They have high expectations (unrealistically so) for themselves and others.
  • They’re quick to find fault with themselves and others.
  • They’re overly judgmental about mistakes, no matter the circumstances.
  • They procrastinate on projects often—probably because of fear of failure.
  • They shrug off or explain away compliments and avoid celebrating their successes.
  • They look to specific managers or coworkers for approval and validation.

Types of perfectionism

While we most typically think of how we impose perfectionism on ourselves, this is only one type of perfectionism, known as self-oriented perfectionism, when we have unrealistic expectations for ourselves.

At your organization, other-oriented perfectionism, wherein someone imposes unrealistic standards of perfection on their coworkers or the team members they lead, is just as dangerous to your employees’ mental wellbeing.

And finally, socially-prescribed perfectionism, is when someone thinks others have unrealistic expectations of perfection from them. It isn’t great for productivity or creativity in teams, either.

It’s important to note that while perfectionism itself is not considered a mental illness, it’s unhealthy and is often associated with poor mental health.

Perfectionism vs a healthy drive for excellence

Perfectionism is often driven by feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem and adverse experiences. It may lead to procrastination, avoidance, rigid all-or-nothing thinking, toxic comparisons and a lack of creativity.

A healthy drive for excellence, on the other hand, is all about striving for excellence, setting lofty goals, having high standards and working hard for success. People with this sort of drive are achievement-oriented, growth-motivated and enjoy facing challenges and problem-solving.

How to help your team deal with perfectionism

Perfectionism is a double-edged blade. Sure, it can motivate, but it can also cause anxious thoughts and slow things way down. But when you encourage your team to let go of the comparison mindset, they can achieve at a high level (without feeling like they’re beholden to impossible ideals). Keep reading for a few practical ways to do just that.

1. Manage expectations with a checklist

Having tasks written down and ready to cross off a list is a shortcut to avoiding perfectionism (especially on large-scale and multi-member projects with lots of moving parts). By including what has to be done, and in what order, you avoid unnecessary wheel-spinning. Then you don’t have to worry about whether or not something’s ready to be finalized because you already have a process in place that determines just that.

2. Practice mindfulness

Psychology Today calls mindfulness "the antidote for perfectionism". And honestly, there’s nothing quite like starting a mindfulness practice to make us more aware of just how imperfect our focus is, and how impossible perfection really is. Mindfulness also encourages us to stop judging ourselves so harshly, become aware of our inner critic and move our focus.

3. Communicate with compassion

When speaking about people’s mistakes, or delivering feedback, make compassion, and empathic communication part of the equation. And support your staff in cultivating self-compassion, too. Studies show that self-compassion helps compensate for the negative feelings that tend to come hand-in-hand with maladaptive (or bad) perfectionism.

If you or the team you manage has a lot of trouble reining in perfectionist tendencies, something to consider is the following: If you want to learn and grow and try new things, you’re bound to do some things imperfectly, and that’s okay.

Although we may not always believe it, "good enough" isn’t just better than nothing—it can pave the way to outstanding achievements, too.

What are some ways you handle perfectionism on your team? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.