Perfectionists in the workplace

Don't find yourself reviewing to the point of missing important deadlines.

Story highlights

  • While healthy perfectionism can aid success, unhealthy perfection is self-destructive
  • Instead of being disappointed by mistakes make the most out of them
  • Some mess and a few rough edges can actually improve your outcomes
There are two types of perfectionism: the healthy kind and the unhealthy kind.
Healthy perfectionism is frequently the driving force behind high achievement and hard work. Oftentimes, successful actors, athletes and politicians attribute their accomplishments to an innate need for perfection. Gwyneth Paltrow, Serena Williams and the Olsen twins are all self-identified hairsplitters. In general, people value healthy perfectionists. (I'll take a meticulous pilot, surgeon or copy editor any day, thank-you).
The unhealthy kind of perfectionism, on the other hand, is self-destructive. It's that Ernest Hemingway, Natalie Portman-in-"Black Swan" type of perfectionism that crosses the line between productive and obsessive. (There's quality control and then there's control freak. This would be the latter.)
If you call yourself a perfectionist, chances are you identify with both the healthy and unhealthy behaviors. At work, the same attention to detail that allows you to do a thorough job one day may cause you to miss an important deadline the next. Learn to hone in on the positives of the personality trait and use them to get ahead in your career with these excerpts taken from "The Perfectionist's Handbook," a new guide by Harvard psychologist and self-described perfectionist Jeff Szymanski, Ph.D.
1. Stop worrying about potential mistakes: "I'm not saying you shouldn't care about making mistakes. I'm simply making the argument that you must evaluate the gravity of these errors based on the task at hand as well as the outcome you're seeking. A couple of spelling mistakes in a 100-page report are likely to be overlooked, whereas a single error in a one-page résumé will capture someone's attention immediately. However, if you begin worrying about every imaginable mistake -- for example within the 100 page report -- you might find yourself reviewing and re-editing to the point of missing important deadlines and stressing yourself out unnecessarily."
2. Strike a balance: In the workplace, quality is just as important as efficiency. "Spending long hours at the library researching everything you could find on a subject may have paid off in college, but you're not in college anymore. Your current job likely requires you to be diligent and thorough, while also demanding high levels of output. For example, a journalist doesn't always have the luxury of extensive fact checking until he or she is 100 percent confident and comfortable with the accuracy of every sentence of every article. Sometimes ... being effective means getting the article to the printer on time rather than following up on every angle of the story."
3. Focus your effort: Chances are you're wasting a lot of time trying to perfect things that don't need to be perfect. "When you take a step back, you quickly realize that trying to do everything well -- and exert the same level of detail, effort and energy to all your endeavors -- leaves you feeling stressed and exhausted all of the time ... Our limited time and resources make it all the more important to be strategic about when we give 100 percent, rather than wasting effort on less-important activities ... Developing a creative idea or providing a perceptive analysis is more important than producing a typo-free presentation." By focusing that perfection on your top priorities, you'll free up time, eliminate stress and become more effective.
4. Make the most of mistakes: "There is a difference between feeling disappointed in yourself or your performance and hating or disliking yourself because of it ... Healthy perfectionism is related to the self-correcting component of self-criticism ('I didn't like how that turned out, so what can I do differently next time?'). Unhealthy perfectionism is related to chronic feelings of disappointment, inadequacy, dislike of oneself and depression." Next time you make a mistake, try looking at it as a learning opportunity instead of a failure.
5. Realize perfect isn't always better: "In business ... be careful of something looking too slick, polished or effortless. Sometimes is can come across as superficial, common or uncreative. Consider that some mess and a few rough edges can actually improve your outcomes."
Put these tips to work in your career and you can be sure that next time someone calls you a perfectionist; they mean it as a compliment.