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How to Overcome Perfectionism at Work

career habit perfectionism Oct 25, 2021

Being a perfectionist is like living with an internal genie. A genie that never sleeps. It constantly reminds you that only the best is good enough, continuous improvement is mandatory, giving up is not an option and nobody likes someone who brags. It’s an exhausting place to be.


The funny thing is that for many years I thought this genie was my friend and that it was helping me to succeed. And it was most of the time. However, some of the time it was working against me. There came a point I could no longer keep up. I had to admit defeat and allow myself to be me, whether the genie liked it or not.


What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is one of five patterns of thinking that is attributed to Imposter Syndrome. Imposter syndrome is an ‘internal state of mind where the person believes they are unintelligent, unsuccessful, and incompetent even though this is not what others think of them’ (Clancy & Ines, 1978).


The other four thought patterns attributed to imposter syndrome are superheroes, soloist, genius and expert. Each thinking pattern is designed to overcome a specific misperception. Perfectionists believe they are not good enough. Superheroes perceive themselves to be incompetent, experts believe they don’t know enough, geniuses feel inadequate, and soloists believe they are the only one who can do the task.


As a perfectionist you set very high expectations for yourself, and even with these high expectations you fear criticism and failure. As a perfectionist you engage in all or nothing thinking and even a small mistake is considered a threat to your capabilities and confidence. When you’re worried about making everything perfect, nothing gets done.


Signs you could be a perfectionist

  • Do you frequently feel like you don't have enough time to complete things even though others get the same tasks done in less time?
  • Do you feel like things will never be 'good enough?
  • Do you go back to tweak things to the point where it’s difficult to declare a project ‘finished’?
  • Do you have trouble accepting a compliment?
  • Do you frequently think they’ve picked the wrong person when someone wants to give you recognition for something you’ve done?
  • Do you have a sense of ‘having gotten away with something when you turn in work, and people accept it as being okay?
  • Do you feel like things are never done?
  • Have people called you a perfectionist?


If you answered ‘Yes’ to most of these questions, it’s likely you are a perfectionist.


Work impacts of perfectionism

At work these perfectionist tendencies may reveal themselves to you as undecided on how to start a piece of work; perhaps you re-start the project 2 or 3 times before you confidently progress the work. Or perhaps you delay the start due to insufficient information. Or maybe you have missed a key deadline or finished a piece of work but in your eyes the quality of the final product is compromised.


To make up for your perception in not being enough, you work longer hours without taking breaks. You over-prepare for meetings, and you use self-criticism and self-doubt to motivate yourself. As a perfectionist, you run the risk of neglecting your own needs. Your colleagues perceive you as a hard worker although they may question your productivity relative to the hours you spend working.


Ironically these behaviours designed to help you feel like you are good enough at work, work against you. They prevent you from acknowledging and celebrating your successes. They can also isolate you from colleagues. Your unrelenting standards push them away as they quickly decide they can never meet them or are unwilling to push themselves like you do to meet them. As a result, perfectionists are often lonely at work. Working longer hours can only take your career so far. If you don’t adapt your approach to work, you will either plateau or feel disillusioned with your career progress. Often perfectionists suffer in silence until they no longer can.


In my practice I have always had clients in their 30s and 40s wanting to change the way they work and increase their self-confidence. Now, older workers are also asking for similar support as they recognize they are disillusioned with the status quo.


9 Strategies to overcome perfectionism at work


1.      Pay attention to your inner thoughts

If a negative perspective has become your default setting, you probably don’t even realize when you’re doing it. You probably tell yourself it’s your way of de-risking a situation. Take a minute to tune into your self-talk. Pay attention to the words you’re using and course-correct for more positive language while you de-risk the situation.


2.      Switch up to positive

Consciously change your inner monologue to focus on positives. Instead of focusing on differences and seeing them as flaws, choose to see what is good in the other person. If your go-to is to criticize their documentation, or the way they speak, reset your view of them by finding something to admire.


3.      Retune to a broader perspective

It’s easy to fall into the habit of seeing things as right or wrong. Sure, someone else’s way of doing something may not be aligned to your way. It doesn’t mean their approach is wrong; it’s just different. There are many ways to achieve an outcome.


Holding a single perspective can be so limiting. Open yourself to alternative views – you may learn a few things!


4.      Avoid being overwhelmed by a mistake

Perfectionists can get upset when things go wrong and tend to overly blame themselves. You can take responsibility for your role in the mistake without being overwhelmed by it. Learn to reframe the experience. Focus on the positive aspects, such as the lessons the mistake has taught you. Keep in mind that failure is a normal part of the journey to success.


Avoid spending days going over the mistake in your mind. Learn to move past it.


Keep in mind that second chances are usually available. Even if you can’t do something perfectly the first time, you may get the opportunity to fix it later.


5.      Stay in the present

Some people like to keep a world history of wrongs and imperfections stretching way back. They act almost like the perfection police, waiting to add to their list. Or they worry about future mistakes and how to avoid them. Choose to stay focused on the here and now and enjoy what’s happening in the moment.


6.      Just get things done

When you’re too focused on making everything perfect, it slows you down. Instead, remember to stick to a schedule and meet your deadlines. Focus on completing tasks on time instead of getting lost in tiny details. To help guide how much time to take with a task as a colleague in a similar role or your manager, for guidance.


Take action. Keep moving forward. Remember, you can improve, if you need to, as you go along.


7.      Celebrate tiny wins

Instead of focusing on what still needs to be done, focus on your wins. Each time you finish something it’s a small victory. It’s important to celebrate your accomplishments - even small ones. Take a moment to celebrate and say 'thank you'. Do something special for yourself to acknowledge the accomplishment.


8.      Forgive yourself and others

Forgiveness can free you from perfectionism. Remind yourself that no one is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes or has faults. Learn to forgive yourself and others for them. Challenge yourself to find beauty in the imperfect.


9.      Turn it around

If you find yourself slipping back into your past habits of judging other people, turn it around and ask yourself - how would it feel if someone was judging me? Remember that old saying about people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones? It’s a good one to remember when you feel tempted to dismiss someone’s appearance or actions. Hold some compassion for others and they are more likely to send some your way.  


So, there you have it – 9 strategies to overcome perfectionism at work:

  •  Pay attention to your inner thoughts
  • Switch up to positive
  • Retune to a broader perspective
  • Avoid being overwhelmed by a mistake
  • Stay in the present
  • Just get things done
  • Celebrate tiny wins
  • Forgive yourself and others
  • Turn it around 


Now there’s just one thing left for you to do – take action! So go ahead and choose one strategy that will make the biggest difference to how you work. And start actioning it today, because the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll overcome your perfectionist behaviours at work. Once you start actioning your strategy you’ll feel happier and as you action more strategies career success will come easier to you.


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