SGO Podcast Season 2 Episode 8: Dismantling Oppression Through Policy
SGO Podcast Season 2 Episode 9: The Future of Work

The Dangers of Perfectionism in the Workplace

Perfectionism at work, woman stressed at her desk

“I don’t feel like I’m perfect enough, and therefore I’m not enough.” Have you ever felt this way before? How often do you internalize your performance and what you produce to measure your inherent worth or value? 

Growing up, I remember hearing family members, teachers, and other adults telling me that perfectionism was something to strive for, and I did (or at least tried). As you can probably guess, I couldn’t achieve such an unrealistic goal. Though I was pretty good at having my “stuff together” at the beginning of my childhood and teenage years, the perfectionist persona didn’t last very long. Luckily, I eventually realized that being perfect was an impossible goal, and I didn’t need to be perfect to be worthy.

While a few mindset shifts and continuous practices have supported me in letting go of perfectionism, the idea and practice of perfectionism are still a struggle, and sometimes the environments where we live, work, and play don’t make it any easier for us. In this blog post, I’ll explore where perfectionism comes from, how it negatively impacts our self-worth and health, and what we can start doing to strive for something more realistic, wholesome, and human-centered.

What’s perfectionism, and where does it come from?

According to Psychology Today, perfectionism is a “trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks.” On a very primal level, the fear of judgment or disapproval from others can cause us to have a perfectionist personality. On a social and cultural level, perfectionism is often driven by various pressures and expectations we must uphold in our day-to-day lives and relationships. Some pressures and expectations can come from family members, friends, colleagues, or the media.

Unsurprisingly, research shows that women and people of color in the United States tend to experience the pressure of perfectionism at a disproportionate rate. Feelings of self-doubt, lack of confidence, imposter syndrome, the pressure to succeed, or simply not feeling enough are all connected to structural beliefs and practices. Among many reasons, the development and practice of white supremacy and patriarchal culture are key contributors to perfectionism in western culture. The idea of white supremacy and patriarchy were used to create a human hierarchy of value to gain and abuse power against and over people, especially those categorized as non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual, non-able-bodied, etc. 

While everyone, including those with majority-privileged identities, is impacted by perfectionism, certain groups that have been historically marginalized have another layer of perfectionism to shed. Beyond our primal need for validation and non-judgment, we’ve also created a belief system that makes it even harder to let go of perfectionism. Many of us strive for perfectionism because we either believe that we’re inherently flawed, we’ve been told that we don’t belong, or we’re afraid to fail and receive criticism from loved ones, strangers, and co-workers.

What’s the cost of perfectionism, and how does it manifest in the workplace?

On a basic level, constantly aiming for perfection can be tiring and draining. On a biological level, research shows that perfectionism is killing us! It’s been linked to various mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. We also see how perfectionism is directly connected to burnout culture. In his book, Dying for a Paycheck, Jeffrey Dames says, “employers can, either intentionally or through ignorance and neglect, create workplaces that literally sicken and kill people.” The most significant cause of chronic illness is stress, which comes from the workplace.

So let’s talk about what perfectionism looks like at work. According to Tema Okun’s white supremacy culture characteristics, perfectionism perpetuates this idea that there’s only “one right way of being and doing” and that somehow there is an “objective perfect” that’s both attainable and desirable for everyone. Because our workplaces are part of our society, perfectionism can manifest itself in the following ways:

  • Holding yourself or employees to an unreasonable standard because there’s an implicit rule that mistakes and moments of learning aren’t valuable at work
  • Ridiculing or shaming yourself or someone else because a mistake was made 
  • Tending to identify what’s wrong and not enough attention or appreciation towards what’s right 
  • Internalizing “perfectionist work standards” and becoming your inner critic by mainly focusing on your inadequacies
  • Having a fixed mindset and not a growth mindset, which makes it difficult for employees and organizations to weather setbacks

Sometimes we may even hear leaders and employees say statements like, “we strive for perfection” or “we only do perfection here.” While the intent of these statements might be to convey that employees should try their best to please customers or clients, the impact of this statement can be detrimental to employees and the overall culture. Employees will constantly feel like they have to perform at an unreasonably high standard all of the time, and because this isn’t a realistic or feasible goal, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. 

(Read more about intent vs. impact).

The pressure we put on ourselves and each other impacts our health and creates toxic workplaces that perpetuate harmful narratives of what it means to be a “worthy” employee or human. 

What if it’s not my workplace, and I’m the one with stifling perfectionist tendencies? 

First, I hope you’re not ashamed or judging yourself for being a perfectionist. The truth is that many of us have felt like we needed to be perfect to survive or thrive in this world. So being aware that perfectionism is impacting your life is a significant first step in letting it go. Beyond awareness, you may want to begin lowering your standards. According to a psychology and neuroscience professor, Tracy-Dennis Tiwary, perfectionists hold themselves to an unrealistic standard. When they cannot achieve perfection, “We beat ourselves up with harsh self-criticism and are less able to bounce back and learn from mistakes.” It becomes this never-ending cycle of all or nothing mentality. 

In addition to lowering your standards, you may need to get good at failing. Many of us are afraid of failing because of our internalized fear of being a failure. Usually, it’s not the fact that we’ve failed, but it’s the story we tell ourselves when we fail. This is why many people procrastinate. Procrastination is often a symptom of perfectionism because we think that we’re only able to achieve something if done perfectly, so we never start or finish a goal because we fear that it won’t be perfect enough or that we’ll fail. Incorporating small action items, being more realistic, and realizing that failing doesn’t make you a failure are other ways to practice letting go of perfectionism. 

How can we let go of perfectionism in the workplace? 

Letting go of perfectionism doesn’t mean we can’t strive for excellence or hold ourselves accountable in the workplace. Letting go of perfectionism is about giving ourselves more grace and demonstrating both self and communal compassion because we recognize that mistakes are part of life. That’s what makes us human. 

Shifting our mindset and practices starts with an internal assessment of inherent beliefs and attitudes about self-worth. For our workplace cultures to change, we’ll need to reflect on the harmful narratives we’ve accepted as truth about ourselves and others and how we consciously or unconsciously bring these “truths” to our team dynamics and work expectations. From there, we’re better positioned to further reflect on organizational culture and how perfectionism might manifest itself without us realizing it. In addition to assessing and reflecting, here are a few alternative goals to strive for instead:

  • Recognize and appreciate progress over perfection 
  • Appreciate the effort and celebrate both learnings and wins 
  • Shift to “good enough” can also be “perfect enough”
  • Create a culture of second chances (multiple times) and provide specific and clear feedback so that employees have an opportunity to learn 
  • Set the expectation that we’ll make mistakes in a learning environment
  • Understand and practice emphasizing that performance and production have nothing to do with an employee’s inherent worth and value

The good news is that we don’t have to hold onto narratives that no longer serve us. We can individually and collectively choose to strive for goals that are realistic and in support of our humanness and need to belong. While it may be a bit challenging, the more we practice, the better we can get at failing. After all, we’re striving for progression, not perfection.