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How Do Perfectionists Behave at Work?

This lesson is a part of an audio course How to Overcome Perfectionism and Fear of Failure by Nar Mina

A writer who wants her work to be perfect may spend so much time checking it over that she can never complete her assignments on time. A supervisor who insists on perfection will be unable to delegate and will end up working eighteen-hour days because she does too many tasks herself.

Aiming to do your job with excellence is healthy; expecting to do it perfectly is unrealistic and sets you up for disappointment, shame, anxiety, depression, and anger.

We think of paying attention to detail as a positive quality, and many times it is. But often, paying attention to detail causes you to lose track of the big picture; being a perfectionist at work doesn't necessarily mean you're doing a really good job. Say that on Monday your boss gives you three tasks to do by Friday. If you spend Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and

Thursday doing task number 1 perfectly, you may not have time to do tasks number 2 and 3 by Friday. Then you have to ask for a deadline extension.

It depends on the situation, of course, but in most cases, a boss would rather have all three jobs done adequately (and on time) than one job perfectly done and the other two late. It's hard to let go of details, but at work, it's sometimes the most effective strategy.

Perfectionists are most comfortable when they've mastered their domain – if you know how to do your job very well and you can control your work environment to a high degree, you feel relatively content. This feeling of contentment can stop you from seeking or accepting promotions, however – being elevated from a comfortable job that you can do in your sleep to a new position that requires a whole new level of mastery can provoke lots of anxiety.

If you feel insecure about your abilities, you may worry that promotion will put flaws and imperfections on display in an embarrassing way. You may even fear that people will "see through you" if you rise to a higher job level.

Perfectionistic managers are unlikely to make good leaders. Since a good leader will create a culture where mistakes are ok, where it is not always necessary to be right, and where they are prepared to be seen as vulnerable, it's no wonder that the perfectionist will struggle with the transition to leadership.

Many people reach senior positions, but when they move into a leadership role, they often find themselves still getting tied up in the detail of operational issues, failing to delegate, and being accused of micro-management.

They find it a real challenge to recognize that their job now is to inspire others and achieve results through them. This causes stress as they try to do everything themselves.

Another important aspect of leadership is the vision to create and shape the future of the organization, which involves “big picture” thinking, taking risks, and having the courage to try new ideas. All of this is very difficult if your main driving force is fear of failure.

Understanding what thoughts stand behind your behaviors, and whether they're distorted in any way, makes it easier for you to pick the best career-related choices. Not that you have to force yourself to leave a comfortable job so you can scramble up an anxiety-provoking career ladder. Having a comfy job that fits like an old sweater may be the best thing for you at this point in your life. But it's important to have a reality-based awareness of

what motivates you so that the work you choose to do is a real choice and not just an anxiety-based default.

Perfectionists are very detail-oriented, and we are often our own worst critics. We check things over and over and never quite feel like our work is good enough. But not every project has to be done perfectly.

If you're not sure what needs A-plus effort and what can be done just adequately, think carefully about what your employer wants. If you feel comfortable doing so, work with your boss to set expectations. There's no point wasting time doing something perfectly if your boss is happy with "good enough." What satisfies you as a perfectionist may be far more than what your employer actually needs. When you're doing a project, ask yourself: What are my employer's expectations on this? You don't have to get an A-plus on every task.

Perfectionism can really get in the way if you're an employer or manager. Unless you have perfectionists working for you, nobody can live up to your standards.

First of all, you've got to delegate, or you'll be working eighty-hour weeks. When you give someone a task, be very clear about the minimum standards of acceptance. Be aware that it's fair to expect their work to be acceptable, but not to assume it will be superlative. When the work is handed in, and it's not as good as you wanted, ask yourself: Does it meet the minimum standards of acceptance? If not, what's the best tack – to redo it yourself or to give it back to the employee with suggestions on how to make it good enough? Although it's tempting to just do it yourself, that may insult your employees. Better to let them fix it, so they can learn and take pride in it.

When the work needs to be perfect, then insist on it being done perfectly. If good enough is good enough, then settle for it. Demanding that everyone do everything perfectly all the time will frustrate you and everyone else.

When someone says five good things about our work and one bad thing, We filter out the good and focus on the bad. When we receive a compliment on a task well done, we disqualify it by belittling the quality of the work.

If someone makes an offhand comment that upsets you – for example, if your boss said, "You look tired today!" – don't presume the worst. Make a list of all of the remark's possible meanings, and challenge the auto-thought belief that the speaker had the most offensive meaning in mind. The more you can defuse a comment, the better able you'll be to let it go and move on to other, more productive thoughts. Perfectionists are notorious people-pleasers at work. We want everyone at work to like us, from the top manager to the guy who empties the trash.

Unfortunately, people require a huge amount of time and energy, and it can trigger anxiety and depression. People-pleasing ultimately ends in failure because it is impossible to please everyone. You can change people-pleasing behavior by developing awareness of your own patterns.

Identify your own people-pleasing habits. Spend some time reflecting on how you can change your behavior. Start small by speaking up at a meeting or saying no to a small favor. Express some of your emotions rather than holding them in. Put your needs first sometimes. It will feel uncomfortable in the beginning, but over time the discomfort will subside.

"No" is one of the hardest words for perfectionists to say. Perfectionists are people-pleasers. We take care of people. We want people to like us and approve of us and appreciate us. We want to be seen as good folks, and we don't like to disappoint people.

A commonly held automatic thought among people-pleasers is, "Doing something for myself is selfish."

Saying no feels selfish – but it's not. It's an act of self-care and self-nurturance. The truth is, we have a right to say no. We do not owe the world 24/7 assistance. Our personal value is not determined by how many bake sales we run.

When your neighbor asks you to take care of her cats for three weeks, you can say no in four ways:

  1. Just say no, which is really tough to do.
  2. Say no with a "because." No, you can't take care of her cats because you're allergic.
  3. Say no with a "how about." No, you can't take care of her cats, but how about you give her the phone number of a neighbor who loves cats and would probably be willing to do it.
  4. Say you'll get back to her. "I'm right in the middle of something – can I call you back?" That gives you time to make the right decision and, if the answer is no, figure out how to say it.

Perfectionist's need for approval can cause real problems at work. Most managers are too quick to criticize and too slow to show appreciation, and of course, this can have a particularly damaging effect on the perfectionist, for whom approval is central to what makes them tick. This can lead to exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, disillusionment, and an overall negative feeling towards their workplace, due to feeling unappreciated.

This is the end of lesson 4. In the next lesson, you'll learn about dealing with some negative sides of perfectionism

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Nar Mina

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