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Is perfectionism always a good thing?

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“I’m a bit of a perfectionist” used to be recommended as a good answer to that much-used question at job interviews “what are your faults?”

Perfectionism has traditionally been seen as a positive quality in the workplace.

But is perfectionism always a good thing, at work or in our social lives? 


Healthy perfection

A healthy amount of perfectionism means that we set high standards for ourselves, but we are also able to adjust our standards to meet the demands of a situation.  When our perfectionist tendencies are in balance, we can be satisfied by and derive pleasure from what we have achieved and can sometimes achieve things which we never thought possible.

Overdone perfectionism, however, can limit our own performance and can have a negative impact on the effective functioning of groups, teams and the performance of our colleagues and reports.

When perfectionism is overdone, we are unable to adjust our standards to the context. Consequently we don’t experience pleasure or satisfaction from our achievements because we are never able to live up to the exacting standards we have set for ourselves. Setting constantly unrealistic standards for ourselves can lead to any or all of the following:

•    Burnout
•    Avoidance or procrastination
•    Being over-critical of others
•    Micro-management of others
•    Fear of failure
•    Being defensive when criticised
•    Covering up or denying mistakes 

Perfectionism can take a variety of different forms. You can be a ‘self-oriented perfectionist’, which means that you apply strict standards to your own performance and engage in overly critical self-evaluation. You can be an ‘other-oriented perfectionist’, setting unrealistically high standards for others - partners, colleagues, children or direct reports and constantly criticising their performances. Sometimes you can be both – beating others with the same stick you use to beat yourself.

If you recognise some of these traits in yourself, you will probably also recognize and experience the high levels of stress which come with these traits.  

Here are 5 coaching questions and approaches to tackle your perfectionism:

•    Imagine you are at the end of your life looking back on all you have achieved... What did you learn from the things you did not do perfectly?

•    What would be the impact of reducing by 10% the standards you set for yourself?

•    How could making mistakes become less painful for you?

•    What price do you - and others - pay for your perfectionism?

•    Practice using the “scale of awfulness”. Think about a 1-100 scale and consider what would have to happen to get a score of 100. 

When you make a mistake, or when something doesn’t go quite the way you planned, consider what score you would give this on the scale of awfulness.  It will put things into sharp perspective for you.

Kim Morgan

By Kim Morgan

Kim is the managing director of Barefoot Coaching Ltd, one of the UK’s leading providers of coaching and University Accredited Coach Training. Kim was one of the UK’s first executive business and personal coaches, who has pioneered and led externally certified University Masters Level Postgraduate Awards in Coach Training since 2001.

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