It is said that Virgil, before he died, asked for his Aeneid, the effort he had worked on for 11 years, to be burnt. The reason was not trivial, at least for him: he had not found the perfection he sought. Emily Dickinson, the American poet, also asked her sister to burn all her papers. Other literary greats such as Kafka, Nabokov and Lord Byron made similar requests to people in their inner circle.
Fortunately for the world, their confidants didn’t listen to them, or at least not entirely. The motive of these geniuses was always the same: their works were not perfect, even though they have gone down in history as literary masterpieces. This reveals a lesson: being a perfectionist at work can be a hindrance when it leads to a feeling of dissatisfaction after a great effort.
What will I read about in this article?
- Concept of perfection
- To be or not to be a perfectionist at work, that is the question
- Keys to positive perfectionism at work
An approach to the concept of perfection
To perfect comes from Latin, and its original meaning is “to go through again”, “to rework something already done”. The first entry in the dictionary also goes precisely in this direction: “to improve something or make it more perfect”. Therefore, perfection is to go back to something already done or worked on, to make it better. It always implies going back, taking it up again.
“Perfection is going back to something already done or worked on, in order to do it better”
It invites us to do things in the best possible way, to take care of the details, and to give ourselves completely to what we are doing. In this sense, the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler already indicated that all human beings possess an inner drive, the desire for perfectionism, which drives us to develop our maximum potential.
To be or not to be a perfectionist at work, that is the question
The workplace and organisations are a privileged space for applying perfectionism, as it’s a domain where there are clear challenges, written objectives, ongoing assessment, continuous monitoring, and rewards. This is why, in recent years, there’s been an emerging interest in how to be a perfectionist at work.
Some authors point out that it’s not only an internal drive, the desire for perfectionism of which Adler spoke. Also the environment, especially with the rise of meritocracy, where people are ranked and sorted according to their talents, invites to perfectionism. In this sense, some researchers also point out that organisations have raised expectations on their employees to standards that are almost impossible to meet.
Accordingly, there’s a self-imposed internal drive for perfectionism, but also an external need for perfectionism, imposed by the environment. It can therefore be an internal need or a social prescription.
Within the professional sphere, a distinction can be made between two types of perfectionism at work: positive and negative. Adler already warned that perfectionism can be dysfunctional, as one constantly compares oneself to an unattainable ideal, generating a potential feeling of inferiority.
From this first dichotomy, other conceptualisations emerged in the literature such as “perfectionist strivings” versus “perfectionist concerns”:
- Perfectionistic strivings are individual efforts towards perfection, always oriented towards oneself and not towards others, and where the weight is on one’s own intention.
- In the case of perfectionistic concerns, they occur when there’s excessive preoccupation with mistakes, when perfectionism is socially prescribed and when negative reactions to imperfections arise.
Therefore, in organisations, and indeed in any environment, three profiles may exist according to this model: non-perfectionists, intention-based perfectionists, and concern-based perfectionists.
The studies reviewed report that concern-based perfectionists exhibit job strain, low job satisfaction, low commitment, low efficiency, high levels of fatigue, anxiety, and stress. In addition, they do not achieve their goals.
In the case of intention-based perfectionists, the results are better: positive thinking, commitment to the organisation, high level of job satisfaction, sense of achievement, or effectiveness.
At the intrapersonal level, where the implications of perfectionism with others are measured, the results were also worse for concern-based perfectionists than intention-based perfectionists, with worse levels of work-life balance and conflict with partners.
Keys to positive perfectionism at work
Further research is needed because, although the results are clear, people are fragile and complex and the influence of today’s culture on our understanding of ourselves shapes our behaviours. There are many questions to be answered. In the meantime, these new studies leave some implications that may be useful:
* Organisations can make an effort, using validated scales and tests, to understand the profile of their workforce, distinguishing between non-perfectionists, perfectionists by intention, and perfectionists by concern.
* Organisations can examine whether their culture invites perfectionism, and whether it is a perfectionism that adds (perfectionist intentions) or a perfectionism that subtracts (perfectionist concerns).
* Researchers, together with organisations, should make an effort to go beyond the personal implications of perfectionism, and look at the team and organisational implications of perfectionism.
* For those perfectionists out of concern, although it’s not an easy task, they could work to avoid excessive focus on unimportant decisions motivated only by the need to constantly exceed the expectations of others, which, contrary to what we may think, ends up being a behaviour that is the enemy of productivity.
The intention to be better and to do things in the best possible way will always be valued as something positive. But when it comes to being a perfectionist at work, we cannot let this impulse make us feel insufficient. Controlling it will be key to achieving good results, both organisationally and personally.
- Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-423.
- Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(4), 295-319.