High standards are something all good employees strive towards. Those who are an asset to the company take on board their goals and do all in their power to not only meet these objectives but to surpass them. But when does enthusiasm for work cross the line from dedication to obsession? When does perfectionism cloud ambition? So few of us know what perfectionism truly means. In its truest sense, perfectionism is a daily struggle for employees. It can also pose an HR nightmare in terms of performance management, often resulting in missed deadlines, burnout and elevated stress levels, all of which have far-reaching consequences. But what is perfectionism? How does it impact a business and how can we help a perfectionist employee?

What is clinical perfectionism?

To many, perfectionism simply means that you try your best and you often get good results. However, in reality, clinical perfectionism is far more complicated. In essence, perfectionists live with rigid, and often impossible, self-imposed standards. They expect a lot from themselves and regardless of their achievements, they often berate themselves for not doing more, or not performing better. As such, they rarely feel a sense of achievement. No matter how satisfied their managers are with their productivity, they feel an innate sense of failure for not achieving more in a shorter amount of time. Perfectionists seek a level of flawlessness that is simply not achievable. For this reason, it is linked heavily with other clinical diagnoses, such as anxiety and depression.

Often, perfectionism presents itself in one of two ways. An individual might dedicate him or herself to a given task completely, at the expense of everything else. This can be taxing, leading to exhaustion, burnout and, inevitably, dissatisfaction, as a perfectionist is rarely completely happy with their own work. Alternatively, a perfectionist will recognise that they are unable to achieve the given task perfectly, and so they avoid the task entirely.

Signs of perfectionism in an employee

An employee with perfectionism often set themselves unachievable goals or standards. They will then demonstrate an obsession to reach these goals at all costs, as the achievement of these objectives is directly related to their own self-worth. An employee with perfectionism will never seem completely content. They will always feel like they could (and should) have done more. For this reason, they will continuously raise their own standards. Be wary of this, as an individual with perfectionism will never be entirely satisfied with their own performance. Finally, watch out for signs of avoidance, or employees who spend a disproportionate amount of time on seemingly unimportant tasks.

Why is it a problem for HR?

So what aspects of perfectionism, in particular, cause a problem for HR? Of course, it’s not all bad. Perfectionists generally contribute a lot of high-quality work, they display great attention to detail and they often spot areas for improvement that have been overlooked. However, the negative aspects of perfectionism can be costly.

As mentioned above, people with perfectionism often suffer from burnout. They rarely have the ability to prioritise tasks, as they believe all tasks are equally important. They also believe that all tasks should be done equally well. This places an impossible standard upon the employee, and in their mission to excel they often work themselves into the ground. They become frustrated, stressed and exhausted. This might result in absenteeism due to ill health.

Often, perfectionists can have an unintended negative impact on those around them. They can hold others to their own exacting standards which are, of course, unfair and impossible. Other employees might begin to complain, or their own work might suffer

Despite their mission for perfectionism, these same people often miss deadlines. They reason that a task isn’t done well enough, and they need more time to get it up to scratch. According to one source, perfectionists are 66% more likely to miss deadlines for this reason. Finally, an employee might not meet their deadlines at all, due to avoidance. 

How to help a perfectionistic employee

The idea isn’t to remove all traces of perfectionism from your employees. It’s to help them manage their own expectations and behaviour so that they can be happier, more productive and more efficient.

To manage expectations and objectives, it is important that managers and employees collaborate on setting SMART goals. This way, managers can ensure that goals are attainable. Managers should watch out for employees who are constantly stretching beyond what is realistic. Ambition and dedication are great, but ridiculously high standards just set employees up for disappointment.  Performance management software can be utilised to set up and track these goals, so everyone involved can remain up to date with progress.

Regular feedback is a good idea when it comes to all employees, but it is essential for perfectionists. Modern performance management systems are moving towards continuous performance management, where employees and managers meet up for regular, informal discussions relating to work. This gives your perfectionist employee the opportunity to discuss progress, expectations, frustrations and issues that are impacting their productivity. Be sure to demonstrate to the employee that you are thankful for their efforts, but you don’t want them to overtax themselves to the detriment of their health.

Finally, encourage your perfectionist employee to accept occasional failures. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes, but rather than beating ourselves up, it is important that we learn from them. In this respect, we will encourage employees to be positive, independent and enthusiastic assets to our organisation.

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Stuart Hearn has 20 years experience in the HR sector. He co-founded plusHR, a leading UK HR consultancy, and previously worked as International HR Director for Sony Music Publishing. Stuart is currently CEO of Clear Review, an innovative performance management software, and OneTouchTeam, an online staff leave planner.