Cut Yourself a Break! How Perfectionism Could Be Your Career’s Fatal Flaw

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Perfectionism! Do we have this in common?  If you’re like me, you have taken on an unrelenting drive to make sure everything about you is beyond reproach, criticism, or correction. You always deliver and strive to exceed expectations of all.  Your appearance is just so. Your weight is perfect (or you obsess about why it’s not). Your work product is immaculate, on time, spectacular. If your fantasies came true, everyone would leap to their feet and applaud you when you entered a room.

Not because you’re so wonderful. But because you haven’t screwed up yet. You have this belief that you’ve dodged another opportunity to be discovered for not really being good enough.  You delivered perfectly. People are pleased, having no clue what your drive for perfection has cost you in terms of peace of mind. They want more and more of the same. No one can find fault in what you’ve delivered. And you can exhale in relief. For about five minutes. Because…what have you done since? Better get to it.

I can trace my perfectionism to my childhood. I believed that if I delivered everything perfectly today, my dad might not explode in rage tonight. If he was pleased with me, I could buy a few hours of family peace before bedtime. No one would yell. No one would be afraid. No one would be hiding under the bed in hopes of not being the target of the anger.

This unconscious bargain I had developed as a little girl internalized itself into what experts call hypervigilance as I grew into an adult. Always on the look-out for signs of someone displeased with me, or evidence of a missing footnote in a term paper, or a scowling professor who thought that what I just said in class was stupid. In college my roommate once said to me, “Susan, it’s like you’re always in an underground storm shelter, braced against a tornado that you just know is on its way. If you would just come outside, you’ll see that it’s a beautiful day.”

I carried my perfectionism with me into my new HR career, like it was this familiar weight in my briefcase. My drive made me a reliably excellent employee, and my corporate climb was relatively steady. People noticed I did a great job, and promoted me more often than not, trusting me with increasing responsibilities.

But people probably noticed something else about me:  I was always trying too hard in my eagerness to please.  When things didn’t go well, I spent too much time beating myself up.  This included worrying at work if I was doing the right things nor not, saying the right things or not. At home, I worried about how I had performed that day too, resulting in not being able to relax easily.

We even convince ourselves that perfectionism is a good thing. After all, it’s why we deliver such great results, right? I never considered the costs of perfectionism for many years of my career, in part because we grow up believing that our perfectionism keeps us safe from people we’re afraid of. But, in fact, if left unchecked, perfectionism can hurt our careers, our peace of mind, and even our physical health. Here’s how:

We even convince ourselves that perfectionism is a good thing. After all, it’s why we deliver such great results, right? I never considered the costs of perfectionism for many years of my career, in part because we grow up believing that our perfectionism keeps us safe from people we’re afraid of. But, in fact, if left unchecked, perfectionism can hurt our careers, our peace of mind, and even our physical health.

Our constant pursuit of perfection can make our teammates feel judged.  

Our colleagues can see how hard we are on ourselves and our performance standards. Naturally, they wonder if our attitude toward our own work spills over into judgment of them.  We judge ourselves harshly; why wouldn’t we judge them in the same way?  When our colleagues feel judged around us, they may be less likely to take the necessary risks that truly distinguish a high-performing, innovative, industry leader company. Our colleagues may hold back from admitting to critical errors in time to fix them before they cascade into an ever-worsening situation. They are demoralized if they feel that no matter how hard they work, it will never be good enough.

​​​​​​​​​​We deny our employer the true advantages we’re being paid to deliver. 

We let perfection be the enemy of good enough. With few exceptions (such as space launches and surgeries) success is made on breakthrough innovations, not perfection. Our companies are paying us to bust through past limitations and barriers to deliver a future that people will spend money on.  Most things don’t have to be perfect. Most of the time, they just have to be good enough to allow the next phase kick into gear in a safe, efficient way.

No one can see our true potential; it’s hidden behind all the noise and effort we’re displaying.

Perfectionism brings with it a lot of distracting, exhausting noise and behaviors. I’ve heard someone describe it as, “I’m tap-dancing as fast as I can.” Or maybe you come across as an annoying animal. My executive coach, Toni Chinoy, once led me through an exercise where I imagined what kind of animal I might be perceived as by my teammates. After giving it some humble thought, I realized that I was coming off as an over-eager-to-please golden retriever puppy. And then I imagined that my colleagues were also animals – a ravenous wolf and a grizzly bear. In the animal kingdom, they would have naturally simply gobbled up this little creature who only wanted to please. But in the work world, they just wished that I would please take all my annoying, distracting energy someplace else. I made it impossible for them to recognize the true value I had the potential of bringing to the work in front of us.

We self-criticize and unintentionally invite judgment from others. 

When perfectionism is at its extreme, the first person who is impossible to please is ourself. If we don’t approve of ourselves and our work product, how can we expect anyone else to respect what we have to offer to our company?

We’re so convinced in our beliefs that are built on our perfectionism that we don’t bother to validate our assumptions. Which could put our long-term career prospects in jeopardy. We might even be tempted to quit for no other reasons than our harsh self-talk.

Our colleagues and direct reports feel our overdrive performance mode, which they may interpret as us being in competition with them.

They have no idea that the competition we’re   feeling is only with ourselves because we’re in people-pleasing mode.

We may unconsciously open ourselves up to manipulation.

When colleagues who aren’t necessarily on our side catch on that we are motivated by the drive for perfection, and, by extension, people pleasing, those colleagues know the secret to the weakest aspect of our nature. And they might use it against us. They might decide to keep moving the goalpost bit by bit, so that we’re constantly striving for approval that will always be just out of reach. They might try to make us believe that people are talking about us behind our backs. Or that a boss is unhappy with our performance or behavior, with the objective of attacking our confidence and winning some kind of internal political ploy.

We are prone to take rejection personally, as an indication of our sense of unworthiness.

We lose our enthusiasm for the work, and some may self-sabotage – furthering damaging our confidence and professional reputation. Our experience of rejection as evidence of being not good enough or undervalued. And the emotional hit ignites a self-fulfilling situation. We jump to the wrong conclusions about why we might be passed over for promotions or we are excluded from special projects. We’re so convinced in our beliefs that are built on our perfectionism that we don’t bother to validate our assumptions. Which could put our long-term career prospects in jeopardy. We might even be tempted to quit for no other reason than our harsh self-talk.

Our perfectionism threatens our physical health.

Perfection escalates the stress we’re already feeling. And we self-soothe through damaging habits such as over-spending, substance abuse, gambling, drinking, over-eating, too much sugar. Many of us become workaholics. Stress-related poor health habits only make the stress worse, creating yet another vicious cycle.

Perfectionism is, in itself, a terrible self-talk habit. It creates an extremely toxic internal condition that can lead to physical disease and career stall. And it ignites a workplace cultural environment that is hostile to a collaborative culture where team members can innovate and create in a trusting ecosystem.

You’re not the only person in your company who is suffering from perfectionism. Perfectionism is rampant in companies, at all levels. When you have two or more perfectionists collide in the workplace, bringing their harsh self-talk, stress and fears, you’ve got the makings of a bumper car moment. Which is upsetting to everyone involved.

The gift you can bring to your workplace is to serve as an example of what it means to bring kindness to the job every morning. Starting with yourself, and then branching out to the people you work with.  The work will get done. The quality won’t suffer – despite your initial worries. And just imagine the ease, self-acceptance and joy you can allow everyone else to feel when they’re around you.

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© 2019 Susan J. Schmitt

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Bio: Susan J. Schmitt is the Group Vice President, Head of Human Resources for Applied Materials, in Santa Clara, CA.  This article was written based on the principles from her forthcoming book, Healing at Work: The Adult Survivor’s Guide to Using Career Conflicts to Overcome Your Past and Build the Future You Deserve (with Martha I. Finney). Contact Susan here.

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