Kicking The Perfectionism Habit

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Much of the critique surrounding the quick return to work of CEO Marissa Mayer revolves around the idea that she sets unreasonable expectations for other women. By Leah Eichler (Founder, Femme-O-Nomics)

A few years ago during a particularly stressful time at work, I remember rushing away from my computer on a Sunday afternoon to quickly drive my son to a play date. In my haste to get him there on time, before rushing back home to more work, I sped out of my drive way and promptly hit a neighbors’ car.

As I sat in the driver’s seat, contemplating my next move, my neighbor walked over, knocked on my window and handed me my side-view mirror.

It dawned on me that I wanted to be the perfect mom and perfect employee and I’m not. I’m OK with that. At least, I’m trying to be. Sure, the particulars of an important conversation may keep me awake at night and a typo may set off a stream of self-berating, internal dialogue. But this assumption that every part of our life, from work to kids to our homes, must remain impeccable dooms us to constant disappointment. Isn’t it time we kicked the perfectionism habit?

Admittedly, the desire for perfection ranges from healthy to unhealthy. In her research, Dr. Jackie Deuling, assistant professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, found two types of perfectionists exist: adaptive and maladaptive.

  • For adaptive perfectionists, the divide between their high standards and actual performance may serve as a motivator.
  • For maladaptive perfectionists, that gulf becomes insurmountable, creating anxiety and self-doubt that can be very demotivating.

Although not strictly a woman’s issue, Dr. Deuling’s study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology showed women were more likely to fall into the maladaptive camp, and suffer feelings of inadequacies in there professional and personal lives.

It’s unclear how perfectionism came to be viewed as a virtue but that association defies critical thinking, especially in a business world that values agility and risk, characteristics that require some fumbling and failure.

“Perfection is often the opposite of speed. But being slow is often worse than not being perfect,” said Jim Estill, a partner at CanRock Venture. “The difference between 80% and 99% can often take three times the amount of time. And often 80% is still good enough to get the job done,” he added.

In addition to slowing down progress, perfectionists tend to “drive their subordinates crazy,” according to Dr. Albert Bernstein, a clinical psychologist based in Portland, Oregon and the author of the upcoming book, Emotional Vampires at Work.

He noted that since perfectionists perform assigned tasks quite well, they are often promoted to a level at which their perfectionism “becomes a vice that masquerades a virtue.” But the approach eventually catches up to them, especially as they start demanding perfection for insignificant tasks.

In software development, the move away from perfection to collaboration is more advanced – a trend Dr. Sara Diamond, president and vice-chancellor of OCAD University believes other industries would be wise to follow.

“At one point, lack of perfection meant the software didn’t work but now in the digital world, change is incremental. Things are always versions and iterative,” she observed, which requires organizations to emphasize collaboration and offer a support structure for taking risks.

Perfectionists, explained Dr. Diamond, tend to view results in black and white but struggle with issues that produce a multitude of outcomes, which remains a necessary part of managing complexity.

Despite widespread criticism of perfectionism and its impact on productivity and happiness, why can’t we kick the habit? For many, the fear or failure or criticism remains deeply rooted and the desire for perfection comes down to some very basic human instincts.

“If we are perfect, then we are good enough. If we are good enough people will have to love us,” analyzed Whitney Johnson, the author of Dare, Dream, Do and a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review.

Managing unhealthy tendencies toward perfectionism requires introspection, and awareness, according to Dr. Beatrix Dart, associate dean of executive degree programs at U of T’s Rotman School of management. She emphasizes the importance of celebrating success stories and even keeping a journal to track all the developments at work that went well. Dr. Dart also encourages women to relax and avoid what she calls the “perfect mother syndrome”.

“Women will put themselves under a lot of pressure to run the perfect household, to outdo other mothers in terms of throwing a kid’s birthday party or to schlepp the kids to the ‘right’ activities. Could you ever imagine a father going to such extremes?” she asked.

In fact, much of the critique surrounding the quick return to work of CEO Marissa Mayer revolves around the idea that she sets unreasonable expectations for other women. Like the rest of us, she’ll hit bumps in the road and if the worst of it comes down to crashing into a parked car, then I consider that perfect enough.

This post was originally published at Femmeonomics.

Photo credit: ToutSocial on Facebook. About the guest blogger: Leah Eichler is the Founder of Femme-O-Nomics, a content portal for professional women. She is also the Founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration app. Leah is a columnist on issues surrounding women in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter at @femmeonomics.