Mental health in the workplace: dealing with perfectionist tendencies

We admire perfectionists. Managers and employees alike view perfectionism as a positive trait that enables them to strive toward a perfect performance. However, there is a dark side to perfectionism: instead of leading to success, maladaptive perfectionism reduces productivity and mental well-being in the workplace.

Of course, moderate levels of perfectionism can be ok. Such “healthy perfectionism” encourages you to strive for excellence and persist through setbacks. 

But it is critical to understand that there is an inflection point where the negative aspects of perfectionism outweigh the positive aspects. For managers, it is difficult to foster a culture of creativity, personal responsibility and empowerment alongside perfectionist thinking. For individuals, maladaptive perfectionism involves a toxic illusion that all flaws can be eliminated and an obsession with reaching unrealistic goals. 

Imposing excessive standards and feeling unable to meet those standards can lead to depression and can harm your physical health as it is shown to be related to high cortisol reactivity. Perfectionism is positively associated with job burnout, role stress, inefficiency, exhaustion, and cynicism. Perfectionism, in short, contributes to stress and burnout, which hampers productivity and mental well-being in the workplace.

Unfortunately, perfectionism levels have increased over the last few decades. In this blog post we will focus on specific tactics that can help you fight unhelpful perfectionistic tendencies. Whether you experience it yourself, or suspect it within your employees, these tips and tricks will help you deal with it: 

  • Identify unhelpful perfectionism
  • Ensure that your employees know that they are enough 
  • Encourage self-compassion
  • Fail less with setting learning goals
  • Promote workplace friendships


Identifying perfectionistic tendencies

Why is perfectionism so common? If you want to fight perfectionistic tendencies, it may help to realize how they got there in the first place. Psychologist Jaap van der Stel argues that perfectionism is mainly a problem in western worlds, and this has to do with three things:

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  1. The belief that you are responsible for your own luck. Everyone has equal chances and anyone can achieve anything, if only they work hard enough.
  2. The world became smaller. Due to the digitalization you can compare yourself with everyone in the world. You might have been convinced you were a great painter in kindergarten, only to have your confidence challenged –or even wiped away– when seeing all the amazing talent at your arts school. Only imagine when comparing yourself with the greatest talents around the world.

In the current society, we rate ourselves based on our success. It might be less important who you are, and more important what you do and what you have achieved. In this meritocracy, your merits define you.

identifying perfectionism

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How do you recognize perfectionism? Many people claim at job interviews that their “worst flaw is perfectionism,” insinuating that they are detail-oriented and pursue excellence. But perfectionism, at least at high levels, is not helpful. It reduces success and mental well-being in the workplace. 

Managers can find perfectionists hard to manage, colleagues can find them difficult to work with, and subordinates can be at the mercy of a perfectionist manager. One of the problems with detecting perfectionism is the tendency to tuck away failures and attempts to avoid anything that can make them feel less than perfect. 

The difficulty is that perfectionism may show itself in many different ways. Here are some questions that you may ask your employees -or yourself-:

  • Are you slow because you want to be sure that everything is done correctly?
  • Are you overly organized?
  • Do you often look for reassurance or confirmation that you did a good job?
  • Do you have difficulties delegating?  
  • Do you quit easily, especially if it looks like you might struggle or fail?
  • Do you have difficulties making decisions? 
  • Do you procrastinate a lot?
  • Do you avoid difficult things to dodge confrontation with failure?

If you answer several of these questions with yes, the following tactics can help you deal with perfectionistic tendencies, increase productiviy, and promote mental well-being in the workplace.


Make sure your employees know that they are valuable

Emphasize unique contributions. Perfectionists often experience feelings of imposter syndrome — doubting their abilities and feeling like a fraud. This is not rare, and it is even said that the famous nobel-prize winner Albert Einstein suffered from it, along with the famous actor Tom Hanks, who admitted in a 2016 interview that he sometimes worries about people finding out that he is, in fact, a fraud. 

So if you suspect that someone is experiencing perfectionistic tendencies, you may want to stress the following: other people do not know more than you do, they just know different things. Explain that we all have knowledge, and although it may seem that someone else knows way more, in fact, we all have our unique knowledge and abilities. Maybe there is some overlap in the stuff you know, but you can do things the other person can’t, and vice versa. 

This information can be shared individually with people struggling with perfectionism, or at a regular team meeting to highlight how everyone brings unique contributions.

unique abilities

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It’s okay not to know something. The next step is to express that not every employee can or will know everything.n Many perfectionists feel uncomfortable or even threatened when someone asks them a difficult question or wants to discuss something that they are no expert in. In this case, it can help to practice ways to respond when feeling uncomfortable or defensive.  

For instance, a perfectionist might create a habit of taking a deep breath, assuming good intentions from the other person, and using a go-to response like “I’m not an expert in that–do you have suggestions or ideas you’d like to share?” 

By simply mentioning that you don’t know much about that topic or that you haven’t looked at it like that before, you create an open and honest conversation in which you are able to learn. They may also buy themselves some time by saying that they would like to discuss this another time.  

In addition, stress that, if someone is overly critical, this might be due to the fact that they want to show others how much they know, and they may be more concerned about their own ego or reputation than they are with you and your capabilities.


Encourage self-compassion

Although boosting self-esteem is generally a good thing, it can backfire. In one line of experiments, researchers tried to boost self-esteem in children by excessively praising them. Surprisingly, children became more insecure whenever they were not praised, and children seemed to think they deserved praise even when they did not achieve anything special. The researchers figured that connecting compliments to achievements can make self-esteem conditional: you first have to perform well, otherwise you are not ‘worthy’. 

These findings have increased interest in self-compassion. Self-compassion is about accepting yourself with all your flaws, and about being kind to yourself when you suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, instead of engaging in self-criticism. Psychologist Kristin Neff says that instead of comparing ourselves with others, we have to acknowledge that we are all flawed. After all, who ever said that you were supposed to be perfect? 

But how can you encourage self-compassion among your employees, to increase mental well-being in the workplace?

Embrace rejection

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Embrace rejection or failure. If you think people will reject you just because you make mistakes, you are probably too hard on yourself. Instead, acknowledge that we all suffer and we are all imperfect. It’s not about giving yourself a hall pass to lay on the couch all day or feel sorry for yourself, it’s about acceptance and being kind to yourself. 

As a leader, there are different ways in which you can help employees to feel less afraid of rejection and failure. A few ideas include:

  • Openly share bad news. By recognizing setbacks and failures as they arise, you make employees aware that problems will arise at some point. Failure is a normal part of learning and progress, and not always avoidable or inherently bad. You also show them that you will respond appropriately to mistakes and failures rather than it being the end of the world.
  • Organize ‘f*ck-up sessions’, perhaps yearly, in which people discuss their biggest failures. You may also ask people to note what they learned or how they grew from their failures. The purpose is to normalize mistakes and setbacks. You may even get a laugh out of yourself.
  • Explicitly value smart risk-taking. Smart leaders recognize that experimentation and failure is a crucial part of improvement. Also look at our previous post on embracing failure.  

Realize it’s not all you. In addition, it’s important for employees to realize that they fit into a bigger picture. You are dealing with the current environment, other people, and other uncontrollable circumstances (even you are the product of your genes, history, culture, and environment). Realize that the outcome depends on many other factors, not just your own behavior.

One way to make this clear is by offering employees stock options. This is not only a way to incentivize employees and align the company’s interests with the employees’ interests, it may also help employees realize that company success does not depend on one specific factor or person alone. Instead, only by collectively striving for success will the organization do well.

Breathe & accept. Often we are inclined to jump to action when something is not going our way. This is not necessarily always the best thing to do, and sometimes you just have to observe, take a breath and acknowledge that you’re going through a rough time. The harder you suppress negative emotions, the harder they come back up –just as when you try to push a ball under water. 

Consider encouraging employees to use mental resources such as professional counselling, support groups, online exercises in self-compassion, or self-led wellness programs and apps like PsychologyCompass.


Set more learning goals

Performance goals vs. learning goals. Imagine, you are an inventor, your goal is to be successful and earn a lot of money. You therefore consider every product that isn’t a bestseller as a failure. This feeling of failure could make you doubt your own capabilities, or prevent you from trying new ideas. 

On the other hand, imagine your goal is to try out new things and discover what does and doesn’t work. Then so long as you keep trying, you can’t fail. In this case, the outcome would just be the product of what you’ve learned; the failure itself has no value. 

As you might guess, people who set learning goals set higher goals since failing is not something bad. They are much more persistent, develop themselves more through repeated practice, and can even have better business outcomes. Here are some tips you can use to encourage more learning goals and improve mental well-being in the workplace.

Stop procrastinating

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Stop procrastinating. Although procrastination and perfectionism may seem like a weird combination, they are very connected. Perfectionists often believe that tasks are so big or so important that it is hard to start. Perfection is overwhelming, and avoiding difficult tasks protects them from failure. So they procrastinate. 

This behavior might protect you in the short run, protecting your ego or distracting you from the fear. But of course in the long-run this backfires. To stop procrastinating, try (or encourage your team to try):

  • The five-minute rule: The 5-minute rule is a cognitive behavioral therapy technique in which you set a goal, but only work on it for five minutes. If after five minutes it’s so horrible that you have to stop, you are free to do so. Mission accomplished. However, many people will find that starting is the hardest part. After only 5 minutes, it feels much less overwhelming and a lot more doable.
  • Start with the task that is most tedious: As Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog early in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”. You most likely have the most energy in the morning, and if you start with the most tedious job, the most dreaded task is already done.
  • Break large tasks into small, actionable pieces. You have to set small realistic goals. The harder the goal, the more steps in between you will need. For example, do you need to learn to use some complex new software in the next 3 months? Start with scheduling specific mini-goals for each week. This post on SMART goals provides more specific ideas on how to implement useful step-by-step plans.

Self- assessment. To set learning goals, it might also help to have some additional  insight into your strengths, passions, and needs. There are numerous ways of getting to know yourself better–from surveys to observation–but interviews and group discussions are a great way to gather rich information. As a leader, you could sit down with your team and ask them about their strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. Potential questions to ask include:

  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What motivates you?
  • Which task do you like doing the most? 
  • What do you think are your strengths?
  • What weakness would you like to improve most?
  • What skill would you like to develop further?

It might not always be easy for employees to recognize their strengths and weaknesses.  But open conversation can provide insights and support.


Promote workplace friendships

Workplace friendships appear to help all perfectionists. For healthy perfectionists–people who just strive for excellence–good workplace friendships provide effective resources and feedback and they encourage the sharing of new ideas.

For maladaptive perfectionists, workplace friendships and supportive environments increase perceived approval and encouragement. Work friendships can also increase trust, reduce their fear of inadequacy, and decrease levels of exhaustion and burnout. In short, promoting workplace friendships can improve communication, creativity, and mental well-being in the workplace. 

Encourage regular communication. To promote workplace friendships, managers should encourage employees to communicate regularly, whether over live chat or in person. Regular more organized gatherings–say weekly team coffee breaks or games in the lunchroom– can also foster a harmonious and cohesive atmosphere. Events that encourage interactions with employees may result in greater information sharing.

Start meetings as a human. Another easy way to encourage interactions is to begin meetings with a few minutes of casual chit-chat instead of jumping right into work topics. You can ask questions or simply allow people to catch up and discuss whatever they bring up (e.g., weekend plans, new movies, local goings-on). This gives employees the chance to get to know each other better, which can spark deeper conversations later on.

Promote cross-team collaboration

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Promote cross-team collaboration on projects. Many employees don’t get the chance to regularly interact with people outside their immediate work teams. Collaboration not only encourages friendships, but it’s also a great idea for sharing and innovation too. Employees on the same work team tend to think alike, and exposing them to another way of thinking might initiate new thought processes.


Summary of mental health in the workplace: dealing with perfectionist tendencies

People with maladaptive perfectionistic tendencies are more focused on preventing failure than promoting success. Perfectionism is also linked with procrastination and increased levels of stress and burnout. Thus, tackling perfectionistic tendencies is crucial to improving productivity and mental well-being in the workplace.

To tackle unhelpful perfectionism, take note of the following tactics:

  • Make sure your employees know that they are valuable: emphasize unique contributions
  • Encourage self-compassion: don’t be afraid of rejection and understand that not everything is under your control. 
  • Set more learning goals: value the process over the output, stop procrastinating, and get to know yourself 
  • Encourage workplace friendships: gain support and assistance form each other