5 Signs Your Company is Using Perfectionistic Brainwashing in Its Onboarding Process

Few things are as discouraging for new employees as the discovery that their employer embraces a perfectionistic company culture. A company that operates in this framework typically promotes excessive and rigid expectations and often relies on strict rules (e.g., be at work at 7 AM) instead of flexibly honoring the underlying principles (e.g., be punctual when showing up to work). Ultimately, a company with a perfectionistic work culture fixates on processes and optimization rather than experimentation, innovation, and completing tasks.

Perfectionistic messaging can be presented in various ways in the workplace, such as job advertisements and job descriptions, the employee orientation and handbook, public-facing organizational mission and values statements, and annual reviews and feedback forms. Therefore, it’s vital for companies committed to fostering a healthy company culture to examine these materials in order to find signs of perfectionistic brainwashing. These signs include:

Signs of Brainwashing

  1. Difficulty recruiting. Although recruiting for an open position occurs before job onboarding, it can be considered part of the acculturation process for a new hire. If the job description and explicit job duties are excessive by industry standards, the company will have difficulty attracting a strong pool of applicants. This is because applicants who know job expectations in the field will avoid the job opening. And those that remain in the pool may be naïve to the excessive nature of the requirements, or they may be desperate and do not care. Both types of candidates may not last long in the position, leading to the next sign.
  2. Unexplained early turnover. Early employee turnover stems from a variety of factors, but perfectionism during the onboarding process is one strong possibility. When an employer pushes unreasonable and excessive expectations on new staff, the company is liable to see a relatively high attrition rate. This is true even without a perfectionistic job description or advertisement. New workers may discover the perfectionistic culture in several ways, such as rigid and rule-based language in the employee handbook, an over-focus on processes in the daily tasks, and frequent quashing of innovative thinking and new ways of doing things.
  3. Quiet quitting. Similar to unexplained early turnover, some employees may become demoralized by the perfectionistic messaging in the company culture (e.g., employee orientation). If a company pushes unreasonable and rigid goals, employees will usually be unable to meet those goals. New employees may enter a job enthusiastically, but their energy level may come crashing down when they become demoralized by the inability to meet excessive goals or are silenced when they attempt to express creativity.
  4. Poor Internet reviews. Any of the previous signs can result in an organization getting blasted on the Internet, particularly sites catering to employee reviews of their employer. Added to this problem, however, is that a perfectionistic culture can lead to other-oriented moralism, which refers to excessive and unreasonable moral standards being projected onto other people. In the workplace, this leads to employees policing their peers. As a result, the organizational culture gets criticized online in an anonymous and seemingly safe way.
  5. Lengthy onboarding. There’s no substitute for good training, but there is a point of diminishing returns for training new staff. Therefore, companies need to target a Goldilocks zone. Stretching out training in a perfectionistic way (e.g., expecting new hires to meet excessive or rigid training benchmarks) can frustrate new employees and send an ostensible message that their skills or experience cannot be trusted. This is a demoralizing message to send to newly hired workers who often present with excitement on the first day.  

Steps for Reducing Brainwashing

There are several steps companies can take to ensure that they avoid perfectionistic brainwashing during the onboarding process. Companies should analyze and revise language that pushes rules and inflexible adherence to systems when it comes to new hire material, such as the orientation presentation or employee handbook. Then, they can take it further by adding language that fosters a workplace culture built on principles and values rather than rules. This change alone can encourage innovation and flexible avenues for meeting goals.

Companies can also make it clear from the outset of the onboarding that policing others’ behavior is not acceptable unless it is in response to dangerous or harmful behavior. Instead, businesses can communicate to their new hires that they prioritize cultivating an environment that facilitates open and respectful communication.

Adopting these approaches will allow companies to minimize the influence of perfectionism during the onboarding process. This will, in turn, nurture a workplace culture that will stoke a new employee’s enthusiasm.

Dr. Greg Chasson is a licensed clinical psychologist, board-certified cognitive-behavioral therapist, Associate Professor, the Director of Behavioral Interventions of the Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders Clinic in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, a keynote speaker, and the author of FLAWED: Why Perfectionism is a Challenge for Management.

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