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‘Perfect’ employees beware – your perfectionism might be detrimental

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Think back to your last job interview. When asked about your biggest weakness, did you respond, “I’m a perfectionist”? As you might expect, this is a frequent response among job candidates, as perfectionism is commonly thought of as a beneficial quality.

However, according to new research from the University of Florida Warrington College of Business, perfectionism might not be the best quality to pride yourself on. In fact, it might be detrimental to your personal and professional prosperity.

Brian Swider

Assistant Professor of Management Dr. Brian Swider

“Individuals’ perfectionistic tendencies, especially at work, can significantly hinder their well-being,” Brian Swider, assistant professor of management at the Warrington College of Business said. “While they think perfection is a noble goal, it probably is going to have serious repercussions in their lives and on their abilities [at work].”

In the Journal of Applied Psychology study, “Is Perfect Good? A Meta-Analysis of Perfectionism in the Workplace,” Swider, along with Dr. Laurens Bujold Steed of Miami University and Dana Harari and Amy P. Breidenthal of the Georgia Institute of Technology, found that the consequences of high-levels of perfectionism, especially for failure-avoiding perfectionism, did not appear to be outweighed by its advantages.

While the researchers found that perfectionism did seem to have a positive relationship between employee motivation, engagement and work hours, it did not translate into improved performance. Instead, Swider and colleagues found that perfectionism was consistently related to higher levels of burnout, stress, anxiety and depression among employees.

As part of the study, the researchers identified two perfectionism dimensions – excellence-seeking and failure-avoiding. Excellence-seeking perfectionism is characterized by individually-imposed standards of flawlessness and an unwillingness to reduce these standards even when doing a “good enough” job would be adequate. Failure-avoiding perfectionism, on the other hand, is characterized by an individual perception that perfection is expected of them by others.

Regardless of the perfectionism dimension, the study’s results suggested that it was not constructive at work.

“Whereas a few of the correlates indicate that perfectionism may be beneficial for employees and organizations (i.e., motivation, engagement), the equivocality of the perfectionism-performance relationship coupled with the consistent negative relationships between perfectionism and mental well-being indicators provides compelling evidence regarding the net detrimental effect of perfectionism for employees and organizations,” the researchers write.

For managers who oversee employees with perfectionist tendencies, the researchers suggest it’s best to not overmanage.

“In a time where standards and status are highly regarded and the need to perform and achieve is valued, employees and managers need to be able to recognize the dangers of perfectionism,” Swider said. “Managers can help employees with perfectionism by setting goals for them to take time off, for example. Otherwise, they will work to their own detriment.”

Read the complete research in the Journal of Applied Psychology.