Why perfectionism makes you far from perfect

What would you say was your worst fault?
I’m a bit of a perfectionist…

The interview cliché is toe-curling because perfectionism isn’t actually a fault, right? Why wouldn’t an employer want someone who pushes themselves hard to get the job done to their own high standards? This is why “admitting” to perfectionism in an interview hasn’t worked for a long time.

But lately I’ve realised that contrary to conventional wisdom, perfectionism can be a fault after all.

I’m a freelancer, currently working on the project from hell. Obviously I didn’t know it was the project from hell when I started it. I looked at the project schedule, planned my work to meet the deadlines and got going. I turned in work as I did it, had it checked by the people in charge of the relevant project area and just kept going until I’d done everything. The work was very stressful for various reasons, but things were basically going OK.

And then – then the head honcho, the person theoretically in charge of the whole project, stepped in. She was unhappy with my work. She was unhappy with everybody’s work. She complained to my line manager. Countless tasks which had been finished and checked weeks previously were checked again and pronounced wanting. Jobs that I’d done had to be re-done. Then other people became unhappy with what she was demanding, which meant that most of the re-done jobs had to be re-re-done.

Her insistence on picking at tiny details, on raising unnecessary queries, on requiring people to re-do work that was finished long ago, pushed the project past the soft deadline. Then it pushed us past the hard deadline. People have gone on holiday and come back since she started picking at details. People have left the company since she started picking. She’s still picking. And I have literally no way of knowing when (or if) she’ll stop. I’ve now re-done some of my tasks on this project ten or eleven times, and I think others are in the same boat.

My goal when I started work was to do the best job possible before my deadline. Once the head honcho appeared and started picking at things I thought were done and dusted, my goal changed and I simply tried to get everything re-done to her new specifications as fast as possible in an attempt to prevent her from pushing us past the project deadline. But my tactic failed, she pushed us past the deadline anyway, and now I’m focused on how I personally can extricate myself from this project so that I can personally have some closure. This may involve breaking my contract and leaving before the project is finished. Because, as I said, I have no idea of knowing when (or if) it will be finished. The agency I’m working for didn’t budget for having to do the same job up to ten times in ten slightly different ways, so they’re over budget and people are getting increasingly stressed out.

This type of perfectionism isn’t about holding yourself and others to high standards and thereby achieving excellence. It’s about turning finished work into unfinished work into work that may never be finished. It’s not about turning good into excellent. It’s about turning good into never-done. It’s toxic because it makes others become thoroughly sick of the work they once took pride in, and because it destroys the trust that helps a project to happen. If you prioritise perfection to the point where you completely ignore schedules and deadlines, how can people trust you to lead a project to completion? And why should they get their own work done on time, when getting it done on time simply means you’ll give them a few weeks or months to forget about it before forcing them to do it again? And again? And again?

I realise that some of this person’s bad behaviour is not down to perfectionism. It’s down to the fact that she let a large team get nine-tenths of the way through a big project before popping up and causing problems. In the meantime, we were lulled into thinking she was a hands-off boss who would simply sign everything off at the end and take most of the credit.

But her perfectionism is at fault too. I see a project as having three sides: timescales, morale and quality. If you prioritise perfection and don’t care about anything else, you’re going to miss your deadlines and alienate your team. You’re going to keep draining everybody else’s energy and motivation. You’re taking a lot from other people and giving back nothing but criticism, without even helping to deliver a finished project. That’s why I think it’s time to call out self-declared perfectionists, when the power balance allows. If perfectionism by its very nature means prioritising “high standards” over equally important aspects of your work, do you have safeguards in place to limit the potentially damaging consequences of your behaviour?

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2 Comments on “Why perfectionism makes you far from perfect”

  1. […] wrote that last year in the context of people who call themselves “perfectionists”; I was making the […]

  2. […] a major project, is scary as well as freeing. Your lizard brain is frightened. I think that’s why “perfectionist” project leaders indulge in the utterly toxic behaviour of stalling a project by reopening other people’s closed […]

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