“Is that the best you can do?”
How many times were you asked this as a child when you failed to achieve that perfect grade? How many times a day do you ask yourself this now in reference to your productivity, your output, your relationships, or your appearance?
We live in a world of rampant perfectionism. While many of us take pride in our “high standards” and “drive for excellence,” we ignore the many negative side effects perfectionism can have on our health, happiness, and productivity.
So how did we get this way? And how can we fix it? My colleagues Deborah Bonzell and Ellen Burton at our coaching company have collected a few simple shifts to transform your perfectionist tendencies from harmful to helpful.
The costs of perfectionism
Many of us were brought up to believe that achieving good grades and following the rules were the only paths to success. But this approach produces as much fear and dread, if not more, as learning, especially for learners who don’t thrive in the traditional “sit and get” environment.
As Stanford University professor Carol Dweck has compellingly argued, the traditional model of teaching reinforces a “fixed mindset,” or the idea that you are either naturally intelligent or you simply aren’t. She demonstrates that in contrast, the “growth mindset“—the belief that intelligence can be developed—supports greater achievement in the long run, because students experience failure as momentary, and optimistically embrace the next challenge.
We define a growth mindset as the “conscious decision to view our abilities as dynamic assets we are continually developing.” This mindset is equally as important in our adult lives, as we grow, learn, and yes, fail in our careers, hobbies, and relationships. For individuals caught up in the impossible pursuit for perfection, studies show the result is often increased stress, anxiety, and depression. Discovering a typo after a presentation or missing a deadline can send them into a tailspin. Asking for help is viewed as an unacceptable sign of weakness. And because they are rewarded for being “diligent,” “going above and beyond,” being a great “team player,” and having “exceptional attention to detail,” these behaviors are positively reinforced and easily become ingrained habits.
Organizations that expect perfection are often rewarded with extraordinary performance—for a while. Over time, however, the relentlessness of the expectations and the lack of tolerance for anything less than perfect produces resentment, exhaustion, and ultimately burnout. As Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues in his book Dying for a Paycheck, “employers can, either intentionally or through ignorance and neglect, create workplaces that literally sicken and kill people.” While this may sound like an extreme statement, the biggest cause of chronic illness is stress, and the most common source of that stress is the workplace.
Breaking free from perfectionism
How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from “going above and beyond” to damaging perfectionist tendencies? The difference between positive striving and maladaptive perfectionism has a few characteristics:
- Perfectionists believe that the next thing must always be better than the last, leading to a vicious cycle of constantly falling short because the goalposts keep moving.
- Perfectionists berate themselves for falling short of their self-imposed ideal, even when others view their accomplishments as significant. In contrast, healthy achievers have the luxury of enjoying what they’re doing, even while stretching their limits.
- Perfectionists suffer from depression, anxiety, and burnout because of the self-imposed stress of their own expectations.
Avoiding the considerable downsides of perfectionism requires three mindset shifts, which we define under a “From-to” format:
- From Everything matters to What matters most: When we shift from maximizing everything we do (trying to give both an A+ effort and achieve an A+ result) to prioritizing and devoting ourselves fully to only what deserves it, we free up critical time and space for self-renewal.
- From The finish line to Interim milestones: Shifting from a black-and-white focus on results to recognizing the small wins along the way helpfully signals “good job!” to our brain. As a result, we learn to celebrate progress rather than just outcomes.
- From Doing it all to Doing what we can: Releasing ourselves from the unrealistic expectation of being able to do everything to doing the best we can enables us to let go.
Developing a resilient culture
If you’re an organizational leader trying to break the cycle of perfectionism in your own team, your leader signals are all-important. Be intentional, since every action you take as a leader shapes the culture. Here are some behaviors that can help you develop this type of culture:
- Applaud effort and not just outcome.
- Demonstrate vulnerability by revealing your own shortcomings and internal worries.
- Encourage prioritization and the willingness to say “no” particularly to higher-ups.
- Show humanity and empathy to your team. Lead with authentic connection before diving into the details of the work.
Transforming the habit of perfectionism into a healthy culture that trusts and values the growth mindset takes considerable time and intention. But it’s worth it. If you want a resilient and happy workforce, the unsustainable cycle of perfection must be broken. Walking away from perfectionism does not mean lowering your standards. It simply means adopting a more nuanced view of the difference between effort and outcome.
Shani Harmon is a founder of Stop Meeting Like This, a professional services firm. For the past 20 years she has been a tireless advocate for finding ways to work that unleash individuals’ full potential. She has consulted with Fortune 500 companies across the globe, helping them reimagine meetings, work practices, and collaboration while eradicating wasteful and mindless activities.