It takes you half an hour to send an email, and then just before sending it, you make more adjustments. Sound familiar? Then you might be a perfectionist. Perfectionism isn't necessarily a bad trait, but it can be stressful — both for yourself and for your colleagues. In this blog, we'll explore what perfectionism is, what causes it, and how to manage it.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism can be described as the 'pursuit of perfection'. A perfectionist will never be satisfied. They always have a very high standard for themselves. "When I do something, I do it perfectly."
Symptoms of perfectionism at work
Some of the 'symptoms' or expressions of perfectionism in the workplace are:
1. Constantly feeling that you are failing
2. Postponing tasks because you fear not being able to do them perfectly
3. Controlling behaviour, such as struggling to leave something to a colleague or delegate tasks
4. Spending a lot of time on relatively simple tasks, such as constantly refining an e-mail
5. Being overly concerned with small details
How does perfectionism arise?
Muriel Hillenius, a Dutch trainer in the field of professional and personal development, recognises three different levels at which perfectionism can be fuelled:
1. On a personal level
2. At a social level
3. At the corporate culture level
Perfectionism on a personal level
First, the personal level. According to Muriel, this can be partly explained by evolution. “If you look at evolutionary psychology, you see that people have adopted different survival strategies," she says. "In the days of hunters and gatherers, it was essential not to be expelled from the tribe. One had a more relational approach: to keep everyone friends. The other mainly tried to keep his place in the group by making himself useful and always doing the work very well. So in that sense, perfectionism goes back a long way.” Thus, the extent to which you have a knack for perfectionism can be partially explained by evolution.
Performance pressure in society
Second, our modern society plays a role with nonstop 'performance pressure'. This is felt by all ages, ranging from young students to career veterans, and (social media) comparison can only fuel the flames. Muriel: “An epidemic of perfectionism is taking place in the west. We all have to do everything in life perfectly, and that creates a lot of stress."
The last thing that comes into play in workplace perfectionism is the corporate culture often embedded within the dynamics of a team. According to Muriel, this is mainly a culture in which mistakes are punished. “If you are severely punished by your manager when mistakes are made, this can lead to perfectionism. This manifests itself in behaviour such as covering up mistakes, blaming others, or not daring to tackle things at all.”
At all three of the above levels, the group consciously or unconsciously plays an important role. “A driver for people who want to do things perfectly for themselves is that they also want their environment to see that they are very good at what they do. Again, to be accepted by the group. Each of us wants to be part of a group or community and be able to add value to it. This also plays a role in the workplace, that people are always looking for appreciation. One way to get it is by doing things very well.”
Six tips for perfectionists
Tip 1: Know yourself
"Know thyself" was the text above the entrance to the temple where the Greeks consulted the Oracle of Delphi. According to the old accounts, most pilgrims overlooked this advice. It was often smarter advice than what the temple priestess gave them. When it comes to perfection, be aware of your perfectionism and reflect on it. Try to find out how, why and when it occurs. Do you exhaust yourself because you want to do everything perfectly? Or are you not starting important tasks for fear of not doing them well enough? Thinking about this can help you spot counterproductive behaviour in yourself more quickly and take action.
Tip 2: Inform colleagues
If you know that you sometimes suffer from perfectionist behaviour, it's wise to discuss this with your team members and manager. They may help you deal with perfectionism.
Tip 3: Dealing wisely with mistakes
It's too easy to just say "accept mistakes". That can be a license not to take the work seriously at all. What can be done, and what you can also apply more easily, is to accept mistakes, learn from them, and then correct them where possible. Adjust the course: instead of thinking 'wrong = failure', think: 'a mistake is an opportunity to learn and improve'.
Tip 4: Make agreements within the team
The culture in an organisation can further fuel perfectionism. In line with tips 2 and 3, it's smart to make team agreements. For example, how do you deal with mistakes? And how do you handle busy periods? By talking to each other about this, the breeding ground for perfectionism can be removed.
Tip 5: Put things into perspective
As mentioned earlier, perfectionism has a lot to do with the fear of making mistakes. But how bad is making a mistake, really? When you find yourself reviving perfectionism, it's smart to remember that your work doesn't define your identity. Work is important, but not the most important thing. By putting the importance of a job into perspective in this way, you can work more freely.
Tip 6: Work on yourself
Anyone who is a true perfectionist could use a little more than these tips. That is why the last tip is 'work on yourself'. This can be done personally by reading related books or having good conversations with friends, but also with a coach, in training sessions or even with a psychologist. Perhaps there is an unconscious traumatic experience underlying the fear of making mistakes. Professional help is a good option in that case.
Dealing with perfectionism and fear of failure
In many cases, perfectionism is a disguised expression of fear of failure. We often have limiting, inaccurate ideas about what will happen if we make a mistake.
Final tip: failure power
Author Michel Taal turns failure into a game by rewarding himself for the very thing that keeps him emotionally from achieving his goals. He calls this a failure target.
How? Choose a reward (for example, treat yourself to a massage) and reward yourself with it when you reach your 'failure target'. It turns out that it is actually quite difficult to achieve that failure target — and in the meantime, you gradually learn to deal with your fear of failure.
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