The Perils of Perfectionism

April 30, 2014

The pursuit of perfection can be startlingly bad for companies. But what about individuals? Doesn’t a passionate drive to self-improvement yield benefits?

Yes and no.

In a recent academic study, perfectionism was associated with feeling better and being more healthy–but only when the need to achieve was self-motivated. People who are highly self-motivated to keep improving tend to be healthier and happier, not least because they have a sense of self-efficacy. They they influence the course of their own lives.

When Perfectionism Goes Wrong

But when the pressure to perfect comes from external sources–colleagues, bosses, friends–then the outcome is different. People lose motivation. In this case, the pursuit of perfection leaves them physically less healthy, less happy and less capable of constructive thought.

Those who feel buffeted by events outside their control can gradually develop a sense of helplessness, that their lives are not their own. This doesn’t generate great work.

In managing people, this distinction becomes critical. It means that you very much want your workforce to seek perfection, but for their own sakes, not for yours. The companies that impose perfectionism may imagine themselves effective when in fact their high standards deplete each individual’s sense of autonomy. The workforce may comply. But it will be at huge cost to themselves and to the business.

It might seem obvious that the way to get everyone to set their sights higher is to set ever more challenging targets and goals. What the academic research shows, though, is that you will do far better to create the conditions in which your people want to set their own high standards.

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