At a glance
Tech entrepreneur Steve Jobs was often described as a tireless perfectionist. His desire to attain perfection frequently provoked misunderstanding and personal tirades that ultimately led to his dismissal as CEO of Apple in 1985.
However, when perfectionism extends from an individual to a team or organisation, what long-term impact does it have on employee morale, culture and, ultimately, performance and productivity?
Dr Anna Carmella Ocampo, a researcher at the De Vinci Research Center in Paris, has studied the interpersonal effects of perfectionism in organisations, particularly when modelled by leaders.
She says that perfectionism can certainly help leaders drive high-quality performance among staff as they are intolerant of shoddy work.
On the flip side, perfectionism is linked with characteristics and behaviours that make it hard to maintain good relationships with colleagues.
“Perfectionists were found to be excessively negative, aggressively competitive and often preoccupied with work and personal achievement goals that might potentially compromise their interpersonal relations,” says Ocampo.
When a workplace is taken over by perfectionism, many things start to slide, and the signs are often visible in plain sight, says Scott Stein, leadership specialist and author of Leadership Hacks.
“I have seen this too often, when staff start to hide their mistakes for fear of being criticised by perfectionistic managers – which can lead to missed deadlines, a lack of cooperation and, for some staff, a feeling of being isolated.”
Dealing with a manager who demands perfection can be exhausting and relationships start to fray at the edges.
“After a while, the constant criticism and lack of support will lead to decreased morale. When this occurs, employee productivity goes into freefall as people start to use excuses for mistakes and worry about protecting themselves rather than achieving goals,” Stein says.
Perfectionism poisons relationships in other ways, as individuals become unwilling to delegate for fear that the work will not be perfect.
“When this is a manager, rather than creating a supportive and cooperative culture, unfortunately they limit employees’ opportunities to learn and grow to the next level,” says Stein.
Pressure to perform
One of the consequences of globalisation and increased competition has seen organisations adopt a result-focused approach to performance marked by extreme attention to detail, intolerance of mistakes and punitive evaluations, says Ocampo.
“Consequently, leaders must drive employees to achieve exceedingly high performance standards to remain effective and competitive in today’s workforce,” she says.
The toll this takes on individuals, teams and whole organisations can become endemic.
Clare Mann, psychologist and communications trainer, says, “Constantly striving for perfectionism in an organisation with multiple deliverables can cause individuals enormous stress, and they will work long hours, often at home, to compensate, which also causes difficulties in their personal lives.”
Antidote to anxiety
Before the relentless drive for perfectionism begins to have crippling effects on a team’s performance, leaders need to reset. Stein says managers should aim to develop a supportive culture that allows for more innovation and collaborative ways to get things done, often taking less time.
Associate Professor Narelle Lemon from the Swinburne University of Technology says when identifying people displaying perfectionist behaviour, “managers should be really careful not to use perfectionism against people or promote it as a badge of honour, as both perspectives cause issues of their own”.
Mann advises managers to open up the discussion and give people who display perfectionist tendencies opportunities to receive feedback and share their own perspective.
“Some may be totally unaware of their perfectionist behaviour, or disagree that they are a perfectionist.
“The more they are aware of their perfectionism or try to hide it, the more they may defend themselves and say ‘it is just this project’,” says Mann.
Although an employee may offer to change their approach, instead, they may carry on working like this at home.
“A manager therefore needs to keep a close eye on tell-tale signs of fatigue or stress that might indicate this,” says Mann.
Setting clear guidelines about work time limits is key for all staff. A smart leader will bring humanity into the workplace by showing their own vulnerability – such as revealing that they have missed deadlines sometimes. Unfortunately, not many managers are willing to do this.
Lemon points out that steering employees towards “good enough” or aiming for best practice helps to create a supportive environment that allows staff to be willing to ask for help and be engaged at the same time.
“If we can scaffold opportunities to fail, try, experiment and learn, we all grow individually and collectively. This requires courage from all of us, but in the process we develop confidence and learn so much about ourselves, the work we do and the vision we share in workplaces. This learning brings a joy that interrupts the dominance of perfectionism,” says Lemon.