Boss Lady

The 4 hidden dangers of perfectionism at work – and what to do instead


The drive is on in workplaces to deliver good value, top quality and efficient service. This pressure to make what we’re doing ‘perfect’ seems to just be one of the basic expectations of the job these days. But despite these noble goals at work, we’re experiencing some of the highest levels of stress, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses than ever before.

What’s going on? Why are we so uptight at work and unhappy about it? It might be worth us looking at something that doesn’t usually get much attention, because it’s our ‘favourite flaw’… and that’s the trait of perfectionism. The danger with perfectionism comes about because, as PhD researchers Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill say, perfectionism is ‘an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.’ They gathered data from over 41,000 people and found that perfectionism is increasing, at alarming levels and say there’s three key types of perfectionism -Self-oriented (when we set unrealistically high standards for ourselves), Societal (when we perceive that society expects us to reach a certain standard) and Other oriented (when we have high standards for others).

All three are on the increase with the second, Societal, increasing by 33% over the duration of their study. Because of our drive to make things better, perfect, faultless and flawless, we might actually be creating more problems at work.

The horror of the perfectionist boss

Many people can recall the horror of working for a perfectionist boss who wasn’t happy with anything, nothing was ever good enough and reports, presentations and projects go through endless corrections. Often it’s only a tiny change like a word here or the typeface, type size or line thickness. We might be worrying about things that don’t matter so much. Here are four of the hidden dangers of perfectionism at work:

  1. Longer hours aren’t better. If you’re regularly putting in extra hours trying to make something ‘good enough’ or ‘better’, you could be wasting your time. Working harder just causes burnout, sleeplessness, stress and anxiety and doesn’t deliver on the quality we hope for. Harvard Business Review research from Wilson and Plummer revealed that extra work hours just make us feel better about the quality, they don’t really impact the quality. It becomes wasteful.
  2. Too hard on yourself or others. We might be too harsh, expecting high standards and being disappointed or moody when things aren’t ‘perfect’. But perfection is elusive and doesn’t exist, so reaching it isn’t possible and the pursuit doesn’t deliver the feelings we wish it would.
  3. Conflict and tension. Unnecessary conflict and tension can crop up at work because of uncertain or ill-defined standards. We often talk about deadlines (We ask: ‘When is it due? or ‘When do you need it by?’) but we don’t talk enough about the standard or quality that’s required. As a result, people work endlessly, doubting what they’ve done is ‘good enough’, when no standard has even been discussed or agreed to.
  4. No party for no success. Some perfectionists don’t celebrate the wins or the achievement of milestones because they’re terribly disappointed they didn’t meet their own self-imposed standards. While everyone else is high-fiving, they might be berating themselves near the donuts because nothing was ‘good enough’.

With all the talk of trust and courage in the world today, it’s a shame we don’t trust ourselves and our abilities a little more. Rather than pursuing perfect – that has no standard and no return – it’s better to define and aspire for ‘good enough’ and to get feedback and responses from peers, clients or customers to make sure you’re on the right track.

If you want great progress, put your ideas out there sooner, test and get feedback and iterate. It’s the new way of working in this changing world of work. It’s how startups, tech firms and app developers work and how they make sure their stuff resonates. It’s how to truly identify and deliver good value, great products and efficient services. You can do the same. Tone down the perfectionism; it’s harming us all and our abilities to work well in teams and might be interrupting a good night’s sleep!

About Lynne Cazaly'

Lynne Cazaly is a keynote speaker and adviser on new ways of working. She helps businesses think and work in ways that are more productive, collaborative, creative and effective. She is the author of ‘ish: The Problem with our Pursuit for Perfection and the Life-Changing Practice of Good Enough’ ($24.95). Find out more at

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