HR Management & Compliance

Handling Unhealthy Perfectionism in the Workplace—A Guide for Employers

As an employer, you want to encourage the people in your organization to perform to the best of their ability, but when does striving for excellence become an unhealthy obsession with perfection?

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Perfectionism requires people to hold themselves up to an unattainable standard that they must get right and avoid making mistakes, failing, or getting it wrong at all costs. Most times, perfectionism is accompanied by a need for positive validation and approval, while avoiding negative judgment or criticism.

Some signs of perfectionism in the workplace include:

  • Very high standards (and the belief they must be achieved)
  • Highly self-critical
  • Fear of failure and making mistakes
  • Over-focused on minor details
  • Obsession with rechecking/redoing work
  • Difficulty completing a task or project
  • Overachiever
  • Stressed or anxious about performance or results

Perfectionism isn’t all bad. Used to your advantage, perfectionistic tendencies can be harnessed as a drive to strengthen skills, stretch capacities, and seek ways to accomplish more. However, unchecked perfectionism can undermine your confidence and sense of value, creating stress, anxiety, burnout, and can negatively affect your work and quality of life.

How can you help your staff and colleagues to embrace healthy work habits and avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism?

Acknowledge the Person, Not Just the Performance

Perfectionism is a taught habit based on the need to gain approval or validation for things done, rather than receiving acknowledgment for his or her value as a person. Acknowledgment is about recognizing the contribution of people for who they are, not just by what they are able to do.

An easy way to start acknowledging your staff is to have a conversation. Engage with the people who work for you.  Ask them questions about them: Find out more about who they are as people and about their life. By doing this you are valuing them by taking interest in their difference and including appreciation for the people who contribute to the business, not just for what they do for the business.

Have Gratitude

Gratitude is one of the greatest antidotes for perfectionism. Perfection is really just a conglomeration of judgments.  When you embody gratitude, there can exist no judgment.  Having gratitude for everything your people are and what they bring to the table allows them to become validated in a different way, not based on judgment. Be willing to voice your gratitude for your employees; don’t only think it! Gratitude can transform a business culture. You could even ask yourself daily, “What can I be or do today to create an environment of gratitude in the office or organization?”

Be Aware of What Different People Can Hear or Receive

Everybody is different, and their ability to receive acknowledgment or gratitude also differs. Some people can receive a lot of acknowledgment and will thrive from it, and some can receive almost none and won’t like it at all. If you give someone more than they can receive, it won’t work—it may even have the opposite effect!

A simple way to become aware of what works for each person is to ask yourself, “What can this person hear and receive?”  It doesn’t have to look the same all the time, either.  Each day, ask, “Do my staff members require anything of me today?” If yes, or you’re not sure, check in with them and ask, “How are you doing? What’s up?” If you ask, you will find out.

Be Aware of Your Employee’s Needs

Being aware of other people’s needs doesn’t mean you have to fulfill them.

Be willing to know what is going on for your employees, and ask these questions:

  • If I fulfill their current needs, where will this lead?
  • If I don’t fulfill their needs, what will that lead to?
  • What does this person actually require?

Asking questions allows you to see where you can empower others to know what they know and choose what works for them. When you ask, you can perceive which choices create a sense of lightness or ease in your future and which ones don’t. While it isn’t always cognitive, every person knows what his or her choices will create.

Empower your staff members to make choices about their work. Ask them, “What can I contribute to you to get this done or create this?” Let them know you are there for them and trust that they can do it. Don’t interfere and worry about details; let them do their work the way they do it. They probably do it differently from you, and you might not like the way they do it, but if you allow them to do it the way they do it, you might be surprised.

Have Allowance for Perfectionism

You can’t fight perfectionism—that just creates more of it. But when you have allowance for it, you give everyone the space to choose what works for them. You can’t make people choose something different; they have to make the choice themselves.  Acknowledge and have gratitude for each person and their differences; ask questions and seek ways to empower; and invite staff to empower themselves in the business. If you embed these healthy habits for dealing with perfectionist employees (or anyone in truth) in your business, you will allow changes to occur with ease.

Susanna Mittermaier is a psychologist, psychotherapist, and author of the #1 international bestselling book, “Pragmatic Psychology: Practical Tools for Being Crazy Happy.” She is a certified facilitator for Right Voice for You, a special program by Access Consciousness®. A highly sought after public speaker, Susanna has been featured in magazines such as TV Soap, Women’s Weekly, Empowerment Channel Voice America, Om Times, Motherpedia, Newstalk New Zealand, and Holistic Bliss. Susanna offers a new paradigm of therapy called Pragmatic Psychology and is known for her ability to transform people’s problems and difficulties into possibilities and powerful choices. Follow on Twitter @AccessSusanna.