Here is an excerpt from an article written by Brian Swider, Dana Harari, Amy P. Breidenthal, and Laurens Bujold Steed for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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“What is your biggest weakness?”
One of the most common answers to this interview question is, “I am a perfectionist.” But is perfectionism a weakness? Wouldn’t many interviewers see it as a strength?
Extensive research has found the psychology of perfectionism to be rather complex. Yes, perfectionists strive to produce flawless work, and they also have higher levels of motivation and conscientiousness than non-perfectionists. However, they are also more likely to set inflexible and excessively high standards, to evaluate their behavior overly critically, to hold an all-or-nothing mindset about their performance (“my work is either perfect or a total failure”), and to believe their self-worth is contingent on performing perfectly. Studies have also found that perfectionists have higher levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety.
So while certain aspects of perfectionism might be beneficial in the workplace, perfectionistic tendencies can also clearly impair employees at work. Does this make it a weakness?
We combed through four decades of study on perfectionism to answer a more basic question: Are perfectionists better performers at work? We conducted a meta-analysis of 95 studies, conducted from the 1980s to today, that examined the relationship between perfectionism and factors that impact employees’ effectiveness. These studies included nearly 25,000 working-age individuals. The short answer, we found, is that perfectionism is a much bigger weakness than job applicants and interviewers probably assume.
More on measuring perfectionism
Our results affirm that perfectionism meaningfully and consistently predicts several “beneficial” workplace outcomes. For example, perfectionists are more motivated on the job, work longer hours, and can be more engaged at work.
However, our results also indicate that perfectionism is strongly and consistently related to numerous “detrimental” work and non-work outcomes, including higher levels of burnout, stress, workaholism, anxiety, and depression.
While these effects were consistently evident for perfectionists in general, closer examination yielded important distinctions about when these effects were more or less extreme. Research has identified two distinct but related sub-dimensions of perfectionism. The first, which we call excellence-seeking perfectionism, involves tendencies to fixate on and demand excessively high standards. Excellence-seeking perfectionists not only stringently evaluate their own performance but also hold high performance expectations for other people in their lives. The second, which we call failure-avoiding perfectionism, involves an obsessive concern with and aversion to failing to reach high performance standards. Failure-avoiding perfectionists are constantly worried their work is not quite right or good enough and believe that they will lose respect from others if they do not achieve perfection.
Our results demonstrate that perfectionists’ tendencies may be focused in just one or both of these sub-dimensions, and that this focus produces slightly different outcomes. The “beneficial” effects of perfectionism were stronger for those higher in excellence-seeking perfectionism than those who exhibit more failure-avoiding perfectionistic tendencies. On the flip side, the “detrimental” effects of perfectionism were stronger for those higher in failure-avoiding perfectionism, but were usually still present for people higher in excellence-seeking perfectionism.
Critically, our results showed that performance and perfectionism were not related to each other —perfectionists are not better or worse performers than non-perfectionists. Even employees high in excellence-seeking perfectionism were not better performers. However, we could not identify a specific reason for the absence of the relationship. It is possible that perfectionists spend too much time perfecting certain work or projects while neglecting other tasks or projects. Alternatively, perhaps any advantages gained by employees’ perfectionistic tendencies are washed away by the consequences of those same tendencies. Identifying definitive causes will require future research.
Taken as a whole, our results indicate that perfectionism is likely not constructive at work. We did find consistent, modestly-sized relationships between perfectionism and variables widely considered to be beneficial for employees and organizations (i.e., motivation and conscientiousness). Yet critically, we found no link between perfectionism and performance. This, coupled with the strong effects of perfectionism on burnout and mental well-being, suggests perfectionism has an overarching detrimental effect for employees and organizations. In other words, if perfectionism is expected to impact employee performance by increased engagement and motivation, then that impact is being offset by opposing forces, like higher depression and anxiety, which have serious consequences beyond just the workplace.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Dana Harari is a Ph.D candidate at the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research investigates how employees’ behavior and activities outside of work impact their well-being, relationships, and performance at work.