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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

Don't let perfectionism become an obstacle to change

Perfectionists have been described in psychological literature as people ‘whose standards are high beyond reach or reason’[1].

Extreme perfectionist tendencies tend to be associated with a wide range of ultimately self-defeating thoughts and behaviours, and can often be the root of procrastination, for example.

Research has also associated perfectionism with several risks to ‘self-efficacy’ (an individual's belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments), and by implication, risks to performance at work and in other settings[2]. These risks include:

- wanting relentlessly to get high standards of perfor­mance

- overly critical self-evaluation

- seeing self-worth largely mostly in relation to what one achieves

- having rigid and overly demanding per­formance criteria, productivity, or success.

If, as psychological research suggests, perfectionism is related to personality, without help, its performance impact on a person and even on their career could be significant, and quite pernicious. Over time an individual who demonstrates extremely perfectionist behaviour of an unhealthy kind (‘maladaptive’ perfectionism) might have negative impact on the performance and wellbeing of colleagues and subordinates. Their own performance and wellbeing may also suffer.

Indeed, this kind of perfectionism which is inflexible and overly self-critical has been commonly viewed as basically dysfunctional, implicated in fact in a range of psychological issues – or even discernible psychopathologies. (The nuance to this which I will explore in a future post – is the difference between ‘adaptive’ and ‘maladaptive’ perfectionism.)

For now, we can just differentiate between the following categories of perfectionism:

  • self-oriented (perfectionist beliefs and tendencies targeted at oneself – expecting unrealistically high standards from oneself)

  • other-oriented (perfectionism which is focused on how others perform – judging others in a way that is perfectionistic and demanding to a harmful degree), and

  • social prescribed (perfectionism which arises from assumptions about the expectations that others have from you – thinking that others require you to be perfect and acting accordingly)[3].

Each of these represents possible risks for performance dependent on the setting. Think for a minute about how self, other, and social prescribed perfectionism might impact an individual in your workplace. Do you know people who exhibit signs of any or a combination of these behaviours?

Research has also uncovered the strong links between the challenges that some executives face with, for example, slow or avoidant decision-making style, procrastination, unhealthy and chronic levels of stress, and constantly feeling overworked[4], with perfectionism. Clinical research suggests that many dysfunctional behaviours in leaders may be linked back to underlying perfectionism.

Research on ‘dark side personality traits’ (sub-clinical measures of Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy) does point to correlations between dark side traits and perfectionism[5]. Such correlational personality research suggests that strongly perfectionistic tendencies resulting in, for example, excessive micro-management, or even bullying, may in turn have roots in dark side traits. If these traits are present at senior levels they can create toxic emotional climates, undermining team wellbeing and performance.

Other research implies that highly perfectionistic tendencies in leaders during times of organizational change, or crisis, could derail organizational change efforts[6]. Agility in the face of uncertainty and complexity requires leaders to be decisive and to take rapid action, often with imperfect data in challenging circumstances. COVID-19 was certainly a case in point. How leaders respond to an arms race in AI deployment is another.

In this context I am sure you can all think of leaders you have worked with or have seen in the public domain who can get in their own way, and in others’ way, because of their extreme need for perfection. Usually what is really needed from leaders in a time of rapid external change or systemic uncertainty is a good enough response to an unfolding situation. Comfort with ambiguity and a tolerable degree of risk - and imperfection - is central to agile leadership.

Where organizational change is concerned, perfectionistic leaders can get in the way by spending too long seeking to find the ideal strategy, or perfect solution for a complex issue. Or they can initiate a change process, only to expect outstanding results too quickly, and to an unrealistically high standard, when people need time to learn how to work in a different way.

These sorts of behaviours can all be derailers of strategy execution, transformation and change efforts. Innovation and change usually requires a spirit of experimentation and learning, as well as an ability to get things done, not crippling perfectionism.

Many industries pride themselves on the pursuit of perfection in the design of products or services, to be as close to zero-error as possible, even to attain amazing standards of beauty. In this sense perfection is a basis on which to compete, and is very visible through real time online ratings.

High-end luxury goods and hospitality brands which are aspirational, pharmaceutical products which are safe, consumer technology that looks and feels sleek and works brilliantly, high performance cars, industrial transport, planes, corporate legal contracts, software, artisanal chocolate, beautiful wines, classical music...all these require obsessive attention to detail and a very low tolerance for error. However, even in these cases, perfection is unlikely to be sustained over the long-term through perfectionistic leadership or culture.

In two longitudinal studies (which look at patterns of behaviour over time) in work settings, researchers have found that individual differences in degrees of perfectionism are important in workplaces (the differences between individuals in how they exhibit perfectionism). This research has found that socially prescribed perfectionism (that is, the perception that the culture requires perfection) may be a contributing factor to stress and burnout in the workplace, which in turn adversely affects performance[11].

We would benefit from more robust longitudinal data about the long-term effects of different kinds of perfectionistic behaviour across a variety of professions. Undoubtedly the effects will differ by role, business function and sector. As ever, context matters. It is also fair to say that when senior executives present with issues that relate to unhealthy perfectionism, we may need to help them cope with, or indeed try to change a culture that may demand unrealistic standards from them[7]. There are usually systemic factors at work which cultivate individual leaders' perfectionism and its consequences. Some of these factors are probably external and societal, in terms of the speed at which the whole digital economy is moving.

An interesting study in 2018 examined perfectionism’s association with stress, coping, and burnout in a sample of 298 practicing school counselors[10]. The data suggest that the profession may need to offer additional support for maladaptive perfectionists (in which the degree and nature of perfectionism is unhealthy), due to their potential vulnerability to burnout. For people in these occupational samples, this would manifest as chronic sickness absence, poor service provision, poor work outcomes, and ultimately, adverse impact on institutional outcomes.

Some clinicians and coaching psychologists do not look at clients as perfectionist or non-perfectionistic, focusing instead on how well they exercise 'self-compassion' while striving towards their goals [8]. Organizational research has indicated that pitting compassion against performance, as if one precludes the other, is in any case a false dichotomy [9]. This research suggests that high-performance culture is reinforced by leaders who value ‘self-compassion’ - rather than perfectionistic tendencies - in themselves and in others. Does a leader demonstrate compassion towards themselves, and do they expect others to do the same toward themselves?

Perfectionism’s potential for adverse impact on peoples’ lives and performance at work means evidence-based coaching professionals and progressive employers must be alert to its effects.

In a future post I will go deeper into what is meant by ‘adaptive’ and ‘maladaptive’ perfectionism, how these can manifest, and discuss some of the business implications.

I do hope this exploration has whetted your appetite - whether it be as a professional coach or an HR practitioner or a business leader - to think about perfectionism in more depth, and in an evidence-based way. We all need to learn to look out for unhealthy or dysfunctional displays of perfectionism, and reflect on how best to manage or limit its impact on people.

We also need to be mindful of the effect that extremely perfectionistic leaders can have on collective agility in the face of the increasing pace of change and complexity affecting modern working lives.

[1] Burns, D.D. (1980). The Perfectionist’s Script for Self-defeat. Psychology Today. Nov. issue. p. 34-51. [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] Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (p. 5–31). American Psychological Association, [4] Ellam-Dyson, V. & Palmer, S. (2010). Rational coaching with perfectionistic leaders to overcome avoidance of leadership responsibilities. The Coaching Psychologist, 6. 5-11. [5] Kaiser, R. B., LeBreton, J. M., & Hogan, J. (2015). The Dark Side of Personality and Extreme Leader Behavior. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 64(1), 55–92. [6] Herold, D. M., Fedor, D. B., Caldwell, S., & Liu, Y. (2008). The effects of transformational and change leadership on employees' commitment to a change: A multilevel study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(2), 346–357. [7] Härtel, C. E. J. (2008). How to build a healthy emotional culture and avoid a toxic culture. In C. L. Cooper & N. M. Ashkanasy (Eds.), Research Companion to Emotion in Organization (pp.1260-1291). Cheltenham, UK: Edwin Elgar Publishing. [8] Wasylyshyn, K. M., & Masterpasqua, F. (2018). Developing self-compassion in leadership development coaching: A practice model and case study analysis. International Coaching Psychology Review, 13(1), 21–34. [9] Fournies, F. F. (2000). Coaching for Improved Work Performance. New York: McGraw-Hill. [10] 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. [11] Childs, J., & Stoeber, J. (2012). Do you want me to be perfect? Two longitudinal studies on socially prescribed perfectionism, stress and burnout in the workplace. Work & Stress, 26(4), 347–364.

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