In the 1940s and 50s, Maria Callas became one of classical music’s best-selling vocalists and today is still considered by many to be the greatest operatic soprano of all time. Yet this diva’s career became an example of how striving for perfection can eat away at excellence.
Callas developed a “perfectionism that grew ever more fierce,” reported the Washington Post. The soprano pushed herself to be flawless at the expense of her health and relationships, at work and outside, and her physical and mental health began suffering. Callas’s expectations of perfection weighed so heavily that she eventually had a hard time singing, leading her to put strain on herself and everyone around her. In recapping her career, she said, “I never lost my voice, but . . . I lost my courage.”
While aiming for excellence can lead to breakthroughs, perfectionism can lead to breakdowns and burnout. A key difference between unhealthy perfectionism and healthy striving is being able to define realistic expectations and being able to say, “that’s good enough, let’s move on.”
While perfectionism has long been a problem, in recent years it’s become a good deal more common. In a 2017 study led by Thomas Curran of the University of Bath in England, the team analyzed data from more than forty thousand college students, showing that the majority had significantly higher scores than previous generations on measures of: irrational personal desire to never fail; perceiving excessive expectations from others; and placing unrealistic standards on those around them.
Research shows perfectionists often feel a heightened need for positive validation and approval, while dreading any form of negative judgment or criticism. And at work, perfectionism can lead people to put in less effort, not more— with their subconscious leading them to reason: “If I try something and don’t get it right, I’ve failed. Since I’m not going to get this right, I won’t try as hard.” Sometimes, perfectionists do this to hedge their bets. By not investing much effort, they are able to justify failure without diminishing their own capabilities or accepting that they need to grow to succeed.
There is plenty of research to suggest that social media is contributing to this rising fear of failure, pressuring young adults especially to compare their own work achievements to their peers’. We see this with students who worry about achieving high marks, where motivation is driven by fears of negative outcomes. The paradigm shift from “Cs get degrees” to “I’ll never be able to afford a mortgage if I don’t get into a good grad program” has provided many students a somber drive to strive for flawlessness and ramped up levels of anxiety. If there’s one thing the college admission scandal of 2019 taught us, it’s that the pressure students and their parents feel is palpable and can push those with wealth and power to make terrible decisions.
In terms of identifying if someone is a perfectionist on your team at work, Dr. Alice Boyes, former clinical psychologist and author of The Anxiety Toolkit, advises that these people might seek excessive guidance, seem loath to take any sort of risk, and treat every decision as if it were a matter of life and death. It’s a good assumption to make that those displaying perfectionist tendencies have anxiety.
Harvard University research adds that perfectionists tend to become overly defensive when criticized. Healthy strivers, by contrast, tend to take criticism in stride as they push for superior results. And while strivers tend to bounce back from failures, perfectionists often become preoccupied with their missteps or the mistakes of others.
So what can a manager do to help these employees? What follows are just a few methods we’ve found in our leadership coaching practice that are helpful in leading those with perfectionist tendencies.
Method 1: Clarify What Good Enough Is
Well-timed gratitude for good work can help everyone feel more confident that they’re doing all they can to help the team. It can also help people learn the boundaries of what counts as acceptable work: when good enough is good enough. If left entirely on their own to determine whether their work is up to snuff, perfectionists are more than likely to overthink and rework, make tweaks, second-guess, or even do too much—such as doing inventory for everything in the warehouse instead of only on the products they were asked to count, or handing in War and Peace as a sales report when their boss really wanted an executive summary. We know that most managers have no desire to handhold their people, and they rightfully worry about micromanaging, but with employees who tend toward perfectionism it’s important to guide them clearly through the standards they are looking for.
Method 2: Be Open About Your Own Missteps
Ryan Westwood, cofounder and CEO of Simplus, told us, “It helps tremendously with perfectionism when leaders are open about their own anxieties. It puts people at ease and gives everyone permission to be human. We did a leadership training last week, and I told a story about how I screwed up in the way we structured management incentives in our latest acquisition. We failed to maximize the benefits of the team. I talked about how hard it was to navigate through it and how much it stressed me. It was almost like there was this collective sigh of relief by employees on the call. They were posting on the thread about how it was so nice to hear their CEO had messed up.”
Method 3: Treat Failures as Learning Opportunities
During the 2020 pandemic, we were able to listen in on a call with the leadership team of one of our clients—a restaurant chain—the Monday after Mother’s Day. The online ordering system had gone down over the weekend, costing thousands of dollars in revenue and upsetting a lot of guests whose orders were never received. The chief information officer could have been on the hotseat as the call started. Instead, the company president kicked things off by telling the group that blame had no place in their culture. “I know we had a tough day yesterday, but we don’t point fingers,” he said. “No one wanted this to happen, and I appreciate Amir (the CIO) and our IT team responding on a tough day to get us back up. Let’s have a productive discussion about how we go forward to learn and get better.” What followed was an hour spent brainstorming about potential investments that could help them learn from the setback. By the time Father’s Day arrived, the CIO’s team had redundant systems in place and a series of backups if anything happened.
Method 4: Regularly Check in on Progress
We advise managers to bring down anxiety levels, they must keep close track of the progress their team members are making. This is especially important with perfectionists. Leaders can help them understand that their work is going just fine and uncover procrastination or wrong turns. The key in making check-ins less anxiety-inducing is to put more control in the hands of employees. Ambiguity creates anxiety, so instead of subjective measures, use individual and team roadmaps to evaluate how people are coming on hitting their goals. Also, make these check-ins regular. When they become an expected part of work life, versus surprise inspections, we find anxiety about reporting-in is reduced substantially. Finally, when managers go out of their way to offer up support with problems or missed deadlines during check-ins—and they come from a place of understanding—it can help create a relationship where people know they will be held accountable, but in positive ways. And they believe their manager is there to help them succeed.