Why You Shouldn't Be a Perfectionist at Work
The co-author of 'The Plateau Effect' says this time-consuming quirk can shut down progress and backfire on you
This article is an adaptation from The Plateau Effect: Getting From Stuck to Success by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson.
Have you ever been late to a meeting because you were fiddling with the font on a PowerPoint slide?
Ever had someone else get credit at work for an idea of yours because you hesitated to suggest your not-completely-formed proposal?
When you send an email or memo on the job, do you dwell for days over the adjective you used in the next-to-last sentence?
Do the words “good enough” make you cringe?
If any of these sound familiar, you might be a perfectionist, one of the leading causes of career (and life) plateaus.
Many psychologists recognize this form of self-torture as a modern-day epidemic – part obsessive-compulsive disorder, part overbearing superego, part digital-age narcissistic nightmare, a plateau that nearly always leads to the edge of misery.
How Perfectionists Irk Their Colleagues
Perfectionists dwell on small mistakes for hours, days or even weeks, crushed when someone points out even a small flaw. But they also bog down team efforts at the office, throwing a monkey wrench into discussions just as everyone is about to reach consensus. As a result, the group process fails and the entire staff suffers.
And when perfectionists are in charge, they are unreasonably demanding micromanagers who irritate employees by obsessing over nonessential details. Because everything is important, they are terrible at prioritizing, perhaps the most important task of a manager.
You can see why being a perfectionist is a bankrupt strategy.
At its worst, perfection is the ultimate weapon wielded by procrastination. Gordon Flett, a professor at York University in Canada who has spent his career studying perfectionism, says the trait is just an excuse to put things off.
How to Overcome Perfectionism
So the next time you want to begin something new at your job, ignore the perfectionist impulse.
Learn just enough to get started and then … get started! After that, learn how to do part two.
It’s like when you’re trying to replace the toilet in your bathroom. You don’t need to read up on the 47 ways the project can go wrong. Instead, learn how to pull out the old toilet, then bend down and start yanking. After you get the sucker out, go to Home Depot and ask one of the pros there how to properly drop a new loo on a wax ring.
If you have perfectionist tendencies, let me present a new concept that will serve as your antidote to plateauing: Satisficing. It’s a word invented by social scientist Herbert A. Simon that combines “satisfactory” and “suffice.”
With every task you undertake, your goal should be to do satisfactory work that is satisfying to you and anyone it’s for, but also just enough to be sufficient.
Satisficing takes much more into consideration than results: It weighs equally the pain and the process required to achieve a result.
Modern economists and behaviorists sometimes call this type of decision-making “bounded rationality.” Since a “fully rational” decision-making process that considers all options is impossible in the real world, you simplify things by creating a boundary around your options.
Perfectionism is the enemy of good and good enough. But in an elemental way, perfectionism is the galactic enemy of action itself.
Getting over it is one of the keys to getting past your plateaus. You won’t be perfect. But you will be great. And, as Paul McCartney said, you will be getting better all the time.