70. When Is It Good Enough? Toxic Perfectionism at Work.

While “perfect,” is an unattainable standard, many people struggle to accept the inevitable: that striving for the impossible goal of perfection leads to stress, burnout, sickness and feelings of failure.  


We know that perfection is the state of being without flaw or defects – and we all know that perfection is not really attainably.  It may be that some of us everyone once in a while achieve perfection, but perfection is not something most of us achieve.  Perfectionism is the refusal or inability to accept anything short of perfect.  Friend, do you see the cognitive dissonance here, the undeniable catch-22?  Perfectionists are trying to achieve the unattainable.  Painful – to the individual who is the perfectionist as well as those around her.

We want to make sure not to confuse high achiever with perfectionist.  And there are even some great descriptions for this.

Adaptive perfectionist: aka high-achievers: adaptive perfectionism means that a person thrives on doing some, but crucially not all, things well. In the words of Stoltz & Ashby 2007 “adaptive perfectionism is characterised as a normal, healthy type of perfectionism and is defined by deriving satisfaction from achievements made from intense effort but tolerating the imperfections….”

Adaptive perfectionists are the women who embrace the reality that it’s simply impossible to achieve complete perfection and instead aim for a high standard of work in those tasks they do well, and that play to their unique strengths.  These women are telling themselves more of the truth about who they are and the circumstances that are in – they are adaptive.

Maladapted perfectionism is such a great descriptor because we start off right away knowing this is not a good thing.  The maladapted perfectionist is likely on a path to pain.  These women are very hard on themselves when perfection is not achieved.  And these kinds of unrealistic expectations and responses lead to depression, anxiety and increased levels of stress.

We can have high standards, the question is what happens when reality comes crashing in and our high expectations have not been mer.  Failure is inevitable – and, you guessed it – far more stressful on the maladapted gal than the adaptive gal.  Crina shares a story about her own sense of perfectionism getting in the way of her own fun – she wanted to be excellent and when she was not, she gave up – until, smarty chick that she is – she realized that approach was no way to love and it was far better to have more fun – even if she was not excellent at whatever was fun.  

As with most things, none of us neatly fall into one category or another and may see ourselves in both.  What are the indicia of tipping over into maladaptive rather than the sweet spot of adaptive:

Do people tell you you are difficult to change

Do you want to change your body?

Do you notice others’ mistakes?

Do you notice the mistakes you made?

When you try something new that you are not good at – do you give up?

Do you focus on the success or the failure?

Do you procrastinate or avoid tasks regularly?

Mistakes are flaws versus opportunities to learn?

Kirsten shares that the legal profession is toxic perfectionism.  Making a mistake can hurt your client – and is malpractice – there is no room for mistakes.  It is the part of practicing law she has most struggled with over her career because it is based on a falsehood – we all make mistakes and that standard of perfection fails to acknowledge the human behind the work.

The disturbing news is that perfectionism is on the rise. A 2019 study that evaluated more than 40,000 college students found a 33% rise in perfectionism from 1989 to 2016.

But this should be good news for the workplace, right?  We want a bunch of perfectionists doing great work, right?  Surprisingly, no – we do not! A vast meta-analysis of 30 years of studies, conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology, found there was no relationship between perfectionism and job performance for either group (failure avoiding or excellence seeking) , says researcher Dana Harari, who worked on the meta-analysis. “To me, the most important takeaway of this research is the null relationship between perfectionism and performance,” she says. “It’s not positive, it’s not negative, it’s just really null.” Is that the craziest thing?  Perfectionism does not lead to better work performance.

You know our hosts are not going to leave our lady friends hanging!  

  • Go for the B
  • Give 80%- As Cinzia BuBois says, “Giving 100 percent should be saved for those special passion projects or for those most treasured people in your life. If you give 100 percent to everything and everyone around you, the quality of your output will go down. You’ll become burnt out, exhausted, and resentful. Not only is 100 percent unrealistic, it doesn’t allow room for learning. Getting an 80 percent always puts you in the higher tiers of anything in life; it’s not perfect, but it’s still rather outstanding. By striving for 80 percent, you allow room for perseverance, flexibility, and diligence, uncorrupted by the fear of failure (or rather, imperfection).”  The Perfectionism Epidemic. We live in a society where failure is… | by Cinzia DuBois | Achology
  • Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Done is better than incomplete or worse, never started
  • Realizing failure isn’t the opposite of success, but part of it. No one can learn without making mistakes, and no project, skill, or relationship can grow without learning. We’re not supposed to be perfect the first time around
  • Recovery activities are critical when you do give it your all – you need to rest and restore and re-energize – you know self-care.

To all you fabulous females out there, some of this may be counterintuitive in the workplace, but the data supports that perfectionism is not correlative with performance – and it can cause suffering – to our minds, our hearts and our bodies.  Get yourself a B and carefully choose when you bring the A game.

Good reads

Being a perfectionist is good for your career, right?

Obsessed with Perfection: How to Overcome Toxic Perfectionism in a Highly Competitive World

The Trouble with Toxic Perfectionism

The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism, According to Research (hbr.org)

Obsessed with Perfection: How to Overcome Toxic Perfectionism in a Highly Competitive World

Is perfect good? A meta-analysis of perfectionism in the workplace. (apa.org)