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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

Be ADAPTIVE in how you think about and pursue your dreams

Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword in relation to defining and pursuing our aspirations and goals for the future.

Psychological research suggests it can be ‘adaptive’ or ‘maladaptive’ when it comes to helping people to pursue their dreams in all areas of their lives, including work.

A very helpful article on the website of Improving Lives Counselling states that ‘adaptive perfectionism is characterized as a normal, healthy type of perfectionism and is defined by deriving satisfaction from achievements made from intense effort but tolerating the imperfections without resorting to the harsh self-criticism that characterizes maladaptive perfectionism [1].'

The same article also states that ‘maladaptive perfectionism is defined by having high personal performance standards and tendencies to be extremely self-critical in self-evaluations’ and the authors go on to suggest that such tendencies also indicate that an individual is likely to ‘possess a need to control their environment and when events do not go as planned, they develop negative attitudes’, citing scientific research on personality preferences of maladaptive perfectionists.

Research suggests that maladaptive perfectionists may also treat their working environment as a place to be competitive rather than collaborative, and they may be aggressive or confrontational in how they approach relationships. Such people may come across as very assertive and they may have a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude to projects and tasks.

A review of personality and coaching psychology research on the differences between maladaptive and adaptive perfectionism, suggests that the latter is generally associated with more flexibility in the way that personal standards are established then pursued. Adaptive perfectionism tends to allow also for human frailties and personal limitations while pursuing goals.

Popular psychology discourse and success literature about how individuals should be 'limitless' in their own level of aspiration arguably overlooks the (perhaps desirable?) reality that as humans, we do all have our unique blend of motivational drives, preferences, and abilities [2]. It is arguably the unique combination of characteristics that makes us interesting and able to contribute in different ways. Developmental maturity is partly about recognizing ourselves well enough to seek to expand our horizons, in realistic, healthy ways, without harming ourselves or others as we do so.

Yes, 'moonshots' can and do work in careers. It has worked for some sports superstars, for superstars in many fields, certainly in business. ‘Anything is possible’ is the guiding principle behind many of humanity's greatest achievements. Diluting our ambition is not the point. However, if ambitions are taken too literally by those with characteristics of maladaptive perfectionism, this might not be a prescription for their own psychological health in the long-run. Working with such people might be a prescription for burnout and misery. An ideal, or a goal that is extreme, or very far removed from current reality, might cause such a person to engage in avoidance behaviours, procrastination, rapid disillusionment, disappointment, self-blame, or anger towards others.

Even tackling climate change which requires human ingenuity and coordinated worldwide behavioural change on a scale never seen before, would probably benefit from an adaptive and flexible approach to reaching meaningful clean energy standards, rather than a self-defeating inflexibility. People who fight for causes, or oppression of some kind are naturally idealistic. Activists usually face serious setbacks and resistance from their opponents or oppressors.

However, the most successful idealists are grown up in their idealism, a point made by moral philosopher, Susan Neiman [3]. Neiman argues that the pursuit of all human ideals, and real-world change, benefits from a dose of maturity to have a positive impact. In attempting to move the world towards what it should or could be, it helps also to keep sight of what it is [3]. The same is true for organizations.

Psychological research suggests that adaptive perfectionism is a proactive, healthy, grounded approach to goal attainment, linked also to feelings of self-efficacy, self-actualization, and advancement based on evidence. On the other hand, maladaptive perfectionism can end up being a passive approach linked either to a sense of narcissistic self-entitlement, or to beliefs about the self as inadequate and unworthy (sometimes all of the above). Unsurprisingly, this can also be associated with depression and irrational negative beliefs about the world ungrounded in evidence.

These distinctions are supported in a recent study conducted on counsellor educators, which reveals differing mental health and performance outcomes [4]. Maladaptive perfectionists had significantly higher levels of perceived stress, work‐related burnout, personal burnout, and student‐related burnout compared with adaptive perfectionists and non-perfectionists. Interestingly, in this study, the adaptive-perfectionist counsellor educators enjoyed the healthy stress which can be associated with the pursuit of high standards.

In an investigation on perfectionism in college students, researchers found evidence of both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. There were strong links between aspects of both kinds of perfectionism and other personality domains, as well as clinical symptoms, and academic achievement [5]. The differences that these researchers found can be summarized as follows if we interpret adaptive perfectionism as ‘striving for stretching goals’ [6]:

Maladaptive Perfectionism: Obsessed with Meeting One Fixed View of Success on Which We Place Too Much Emphasis or Take Too Literally or Too Seriously

  • Inflexibly high standards which are too generic or just conforming to a stereotypical view

  • All or nothing thinking, definition of success which does not allow for learning from experience, or alternative perspectives; this also causes fear of failure

  • Unhealthy self-criticism, self-doubt

  • Highly intolerant of others’ mistakes and critical of others

  • High or even debilitating levels of anxiety before, during and after an important event that requires high performance

  • Procrastination of work required to meet standards

  • Unhappiness, anger, and related emotional disturbances when standards not met

  • Conditional self-acceptance/non-acceptance of personal fallibility

Adaptive Perfectionism: Working in A Flexible Way Towards Desired Outcomes Which We Keep in Perspective As We Encounter New Circumstances

  • Able to feel satisfied and happy with work as it is being done and once complete

  • Standards are achievable – and they can be adapted as the situation evolves

  • Focus is on doing things right and even if they are not right first time this does not cause a derailment or loss of focus on the learning process

  • Sense of self-worth is strong enough to withstand setbacks and is not completely dependent on how things go on tasks or in key events

  • Tasks are done when they need to be done

  • Failure may cause some disappointment at first and then will produce renewed efforts

  • Balanced thinking which allows for outputs to be good enough

Do you recognize these behaviours – whether maladaptive or adaptive – in yourself or others?

How relevant or helpful might thinking about perfectionism in this way be for your workplace, or for causes that you care about?

The tone of this list implies that maladaptive perfectionism may lead to performance loss, whereas working in a flexible, adaptive and agile way towards desired outcomes may lead to higher standards being achieved. This raises the possibility that people who fall within different perfectionistic categories, could experience extremely different long-term career and mental health outcomes – perhaps in any activity, any career, and possibly in any culture.

Evidence to this effect is beginning to mount, albeit severely limited to a focus on medicalized outcomes such as ‘strain’, or ‘burnout’, rather than explicitly operational measures of goal pursuit or performance, or career progression [7][8]. Even if the clinical outcomes of different types of perfectionism have been the subject of extensive empirical research, some psychologists complain that ‘we lack a coherent understanding of how perfectionism influences work behavior’ [9].

What is needed (as ever) is more data. This is especially important to understand the impact of each category of perfectionism on leadership, career success, and business outcomes.

Given the existing evidence, I am persuaded enough that it is probably unhelpful to organizations for those in senior leadership positions to be maladaptive perfectionists.

How persuaded are you?

And to what extent does my argument in favour of a healthy dose of adaptive perfectionism resonate with your own experience?

[1] Improving Lives Counselling (2013). Exploration of Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism as It Relates to Intimate Relationships.,Stoltz%20%26%20Ashby%2C%202007). Retrieved 30th September 2022, citing Stoltz, K., & Ashby, J. S. (2007). Perfectionism and lifestyle: Personality differences among adaptive perfectionists, maladaptive perfectionists, and nonperfectionists. Journal of Individual Psychology, 63(4).

[2] Corrie, S. & Palmer, S. (2014). Coaching individuals with perfectionistic tendencies: when high standards help and hinder. The Danish Journal of Coaching Psychology, 3. 10.5278/ojs.cp.v3i1.666.

[3] Neiman, S. (2009). Moral clarity: a guide for grown-up idealists. United States: Princeton University Press.

[4] Moate RM, Gnilka PB, West EM, Bruns KL. (2016) Stress and burnout among counselor educators: differences between adaptive perfectionists, maladaptive perfectionists, and non-perfectionists. Journal of Counseling & Development, 94(2): 161-171. doi: 10.1002/jcad.12073. [5] Cox, B. J., Enns, M. W., & Clara, I. P. (2002). The multidimensional structure of perfectionism in clinically distressed and college student samples. Psychological Assessment, 14(3), 365–373. [6] This was also covered in an excellent course I attended at the Centre for Coaching. Centre for Coaching (2020). Primary Certificate in Performance Coaching Training Manual (unpublished). Course attended at Centre for Coaching, London/Zoom, on 27th – 28th May, 2020. [7] Fye, H. J., Gnilka, P. B., & McLaulin, S. E. (2018). Perfectionism and School Counselors: Differences in Stress, Coping, and Burnout. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96(4), 349–360.

[8] Ozbilir, T., Day, A., & Catano, V. M. (2015). Perfectionism at Work: An Investigation of Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism in the Workplace among Canadian and Turkish Employees. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 64(1), 252–280.

[9] Ocampo, A. C. G., Wang, L., Kiazad, K., Restubog, S. L. D., & Ashkanasy, N. M. (2020). The relentless pursuit of perfectionism: A review of perfectionism in the workplace and an agenda for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 41(2), 144 – 168.

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