Perfectionism and Performance

Perfectionism is defined in the dictionary as “The theory that moral perfection may be attained, or has been attained, by men: variously held and taught by different sects and schools.((Funk and Wagnalls, 1946. New Practical Standard Dictionary of the English Language. New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Company.))

In the work place, several people in responsible positions act as if they were adepts of the theory. They actively pursue perfection in every task accomplished by themselves, and sometimes by everyone in their organization. Little or no consideration is given to their own or others’ personal circumstances, for example the state of health or level of tiredness, in the accomplishment of the work duties. The latter are not ranked according to importance. Time and space are considered elastic so the work schedule generally overflows other considerations such as the need for family life and leisure time. Perfectionist people drive themselves somewhat mercilessly, with the tendency to treat other workers or authority figures according to the same rules. They assume this attitude to be either a great factor of efficiency and performance or an inescapable part of their destiny.

Unfortunately, perfectionism proves to be totally counterproductive for it takes no account of one’s own and others’ limits. Literally, perfectionists do not allow themselves breathing space. As time goes on, they inexorably approach the breaking point: falling into depressive states popularly called “burn out” or “burn in”. The first term tries to describe the condition of people so exhausted they must leave work at once in order to regain a minimum amount of available energy. The second term, “burn in”, applies to people who are on the verge of exhaustion but continue working, barely managing to regain enough energy during minimal rest periods.

According to the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia, Canada,

Perfectionism is a multidimensional personality style that is associated with a large number of psychological, interpersonal, and achievement-related difficulties. It is not a disorder but a vulnerability factor that produces problems for adults, adolescents, and children. Often people confuse perfectionism with achievement striving or conscientiousness. Perfectionism is distinct from these attitudes. It is a maladaptive pattern of behaviours that can result in a large number of problems. Achievement striving and conscientiousness involve appropriate and tangible expectations (often very difficult but attainable goals) and produce a sense of satisfaction and rewards. Perfectionism, on the other hand, involves inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals (i.e. perfection), and a constant lack of satisfaction, irrespective of performance.

Perfectionism is a chronic source of stress, often leaving the individual feeling that he/she is a failure. Perfectionist individuals require themselves to be perfect. This constant expectation is a source of stress and contributes to maladaptive ways of coping.” ((;

People driven by perfectionism, self-imposed or coming from unrealistic demands by their managers, colleagues or clients, experience many  symptoms associated with stress, ranging from physical disorders such as sleep or eating difficulties to depressive traits, severe anxiety and intense aggressive feelings. In relationships to self and others, excessive search of perfection, manifesting itself as over-responsibility, leads to cynicism and hostility. Often perfectionist people learn to keep these tendencies in check while at work but let them loose, to their own dismay, when they reach home. Then problems with spouse, children or close friends tend to reach an intolerable level. Furthermore, the whole spectrum of perfectionist attitudes includes a tendency to avoid seeking personal help in the name of autonomy, for requesting help is deemed a sign of weakness.

Factors of Perfectionism

What brings a person to adopt perfectionism as an attitude? The answer is relatively complex. From testimonies of people who acknowledge their personality trait and seek to evolve towards a more productive and vitality enhancing attitude, perfectionism seems to be acquired early in life through a variety of paths.

When a child becomes aware of his talents, for example in gymnastics, he spontaneously “pushes the limits”, trying to accomplish more and more. If he lives with parents, teachers and other adults who support his endeavours but show him the danger of exceeding his capacities, he usually gets the message, often reinforced by a few painful failures. On the contrary, if he is constantly urged by parents and other authority figures to accomplish more, regardless of his limits and feelings, a message is imprinted that may last far into his adulthood: “work, work, work”. “Rest and leisure are a waste of time”, so are activities devoted to simply cultivating friendships and personal creativity. Consequently, perfectionism is generally acquired under one’s own excessive expectations or under those of meaningful adult figures. Sometimes it comes from an unconscious desire to surpass a sibling, revealing a hidden fear of not being loved enough.

To be “parentified” is another powerful source of perfectionism of which the person concerned seldom becomes conscious without expert help. By this is meant the experience, usually begun in early childhood, of being expected by one’s own parent(s) to be and act as a parental figure. This is common with parents who have a personality defect, the most frequent of which are emotional deprivation, severe anxiety, anguish, autistic traits, depressive or other tendencies which fall under the categories of mental disease. Such parents often resort to alcohol and drugs, illicit or not, to alleviate their inner pain.

The child senses the parent’s distress and spontaneously tries to help by being nice, serviceable, responsible, “grown up”. But in such circumstances a child or adolescent does not have the resources to provide efficient help to his parent in trouble, and whether even an adult relative could do it is a moot question. In fact, the son or daughter’s efforts are doomed to fail, for no child can effectively be his parent’s parent. Furthermore, a child in that situation does not recognize the futility of his attempts; prodded by a compassion mixed with feelings of guilt, he tries harder, attributing to his personal shortcomings the inescapable observation that, despite everything he attempts, his parent continues to suffer.

What can be done?

Primarily, the perfectionist person needs to recognize the obsessive compulsive nature of his attitude, acknowledging its difference with the healthy desire to accomplish by successfully meeting difficult challenges. Accomplishment usually requires concerted, realistic, persistent action, which in turn supposes that the accomplisher takes great care of himself. Also, accomplishment is accompanied by pleasure and rewards which encourage to go on with the work. In a quite different direction, perfectionism imposes the impossible, a dead end street that leads only to exhaustion. It obsessively imposes pain and “forbids” pleasure.

Once recognition of perfectionist tendencies has occurred, the second step is to make an honest assessment of one’s personal needs, physical, emotional, cognitive, expressive, related to meaningful relationships. Then a question arises: taking these needs into account, how am I managing my workload and the rest of my life? Another way of dealing with the issue is to consider oneself as a source of renewable energy. In that light it is important to evaluate the relationship between output in the form of energy spent for work purposes, and input in terms of energy renewal: do I get enough from sources that help me replenish my energy, that is, rest, recreation (literally re-creation), fulfilling emotional relationships and creativity?

  • Since perfectionism is unlimited but time inexorably fixed within a given period, one way of assessing whether an individual establishes a realistic balance between energy spending and renewal is to establish a record of time recently allotted to various functions over a given week or month. What was the proportion of time allotted towork or work related tasks,
  • rest,
  • entertaining emotionally rewarding relationships,
  • physical exercise,
  • personal creativity?

If such a balance sheet is too heavily skewed towards work, some basic decisions are required to change the life regime for it is unintentionally but effectively oriented to gradual self-destruction. Of course decisions not followed by implementation are of little help. Sometimes corrective action implies a profound restructuring of one’s life, sometimes a slight change in the time devoted to rest, relationships and physical exercise may go a long way towards energy replenishment. Creativity in personal pursuits should not be overlooked, for it opens vistas in one’s life: sports, arts like painting, writing, dancing or singing, active or passive meditation activities are powerful sources of self fulfilment and renewal.

From a different angle, let us now consider the case of a person exposed to perfectionism from people who exert authority functions. Then perfectionism tends to be an unwritten rule that subordinates will be expected to follow. In such circumstances the first question arising is whether my manager’s perfectionism reinforces my own? If so, personal attitude correcting is required, but the pressure coming from above will still be there. To counter it the recourse is two pronged: – to find ways and means that will make these authority figures aware of their unrealistic demands, – to propose alternative work goals and processes. If this does not work, a worker fully conscious of the pitfalls of perfectionism may resort to self-protection measures within his area of jurisdiction such as the silent redefinition of the task arrangements, timetables, budgets, goals and processes, waiting for reality to reveal itself to managers afflicted by a perfectionist attitude. Admittedly this verges on advocating “civil disobedience”, but in many cases such resistance protects both the workers and the organization against the harmful effects of managerial perfectionism.

In sum perfectionism is not an unsolvable personality or group disorder. As cited above, it is “a vulnerability factor that produces problems” for workers and managers alike, consequently impinging negatively on the dynamics of a work place. If it comes from higher management it can affect a whole organization. Its major danger lies in its insidious character: most people affected by it are unaware of its deleterious influence. It can drive individuals and work groups to the brink of exhaustion, bringing about physical and psychological health problems, with their sequels of loss of interest in the work processes, personnel turnover and absenteeism. Quick recognition of its negative influence will invite its replacement by  attitudes and behaviour based on a dual winning force: a strong goal attainment orientation supported by constant worker support.

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