Why Striving for Perfection Could Actually be Hurting You

I recently came across an article on LinkedIn entitled, “Don’t Let Perfection be the Enemy of Productivity.” The article piqued my interest for two key reasons: 1) As a gymnast, I grew up with a perfectionist mentality that I’ve personally struggled with overcoming in the professional world; 2) Since we are living in a corporate environment of doing more with less, and a social environment of better balancing work and personal lives, the topic of productivity becomes ever more important.

Knowing so many successful professionals in the field with perfectionist tendencies, this article also made me wonder whether this personality trait could be one of the contributing factors driving business development, capture, and proposal professionals to work long hours. This prompted me to do some additional research on the positive and negative impacts of perfectionism and reflect on how these trends manifest within the world of business development—and I’m sharing the results of this journey with you in this week’s blog article.

What is Perfectionism?

Psychological researchers characterize perfectionism as striving for flawlessness, holding excessively high standards, and having overly negative reactions to perceived mistakes and setbacks. While these traits can lead to high performance in the workplace, they can also have some harmful impacts. According to Travis Bradberry, award-winning coauthor of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, “When perfection is your goal, you're always left with a nagging sense of failure, and end up spending your time lamenting what you failed to accomplish, instead of enjoying what you were able to achieve.”

Benefits of Perfectionism

While perfectionism certainly has negative impacts, there are some benefits and positive traits associated with being a perfectionist in the workplace. Perfectionists tend to strive for excellence in their work, tend to have higher levels of motivation, and typically exhibit higher levels of conscientiousness. These traits can certainly go a long way in helping business development professionals to deliver winning results.

Higher Levels of Motivation. Because they continually strive for excellence, if not perfection, perfectionists tend to be more motivated than non-perfectionists. Because of this drive, they tend to work longer hours and are typically more engaged at work. On the surface, these are all appealing traits in the workplace, particularly within the world of business development. Business Development executives certainly appreciate hard-working individuals who are committed to putting in long hours to get the job done, especially when a proposal deadline is approaching. In fact, for better or worse, over the years it’s a level of dedication that many of us have come to understand as a requirement of the job.

Higher Levels of Conscientiousness. Interestingly, perfectionists also tend to have higher levels of conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is one of the “Big Five” fundamental personality traits and comprises self-control, industriousness, responsibility, and reliability. Conscientiousness reflects an individual’s tendency to be responsible, organized, and hard-working. Those with high conscientiousness tend to be to be goal-oriented individuals that adhere to norms and rules.
Again, these are all appealing traits in the workplace, especially in the world of business development. Business Development executives certainly appreciate responsible, reliable, organized employees. They particularly appreciate employees that are comfortable working toward achieving business goals and who are wired toward compliance. All these traits directly benefit business development, capture, and proposal organizations, so it’s no surprise that the business attracts perfectionists.

Problems with Perfectionism

However, while perfectionism can lead to high performance, in its extreme, perfectionism can also be detrimental to an individual and their work. This is because in their pursuit of perfection, perfectionists are rarely satisfied with themselves or others. What’s more, perfectionists experience high levels of stress and anxiety from trying to reach ever-higher standards. Perfectionists also have a hard time delegating and letting go of control. Taken to the extreme, particularly in each of these areas, it’s no surprise that perfectionism can be the enemy of productivity—which can be seriously dangerous in the world of business development.

Never Satisfied. When individuals consistently overanalyze projects and keep finding flaws, it leads to countless hours of wasted time striving for unachievable perfection. This creates a bottleneck in the workflow and ultimately hinders productivity. What’s more, because perfectionists are prone to being overly critical of themselves and others, they’re frequently left with a nagging sense of failure. These individuals can’t see past what they failed to accomplish in order to appreciate the things that they were able to accomplish. This constant dissatisfaction can lead to a negative sense of self-worth and resentment from others among the team.

Problems Delegating. Perfectionism also makes individuals prone to setting inflexible and excessively high standards. In the business development world, this can cause some obvious problems. This constant pursuit of perfection can cause individuals to become overly judgmental and critical of not only themselves, but of others. This may make it difficult for perfectionists to delegate tasks to others. When perfections do let go enough to delegate, their need for control makes them susceptible to micromanaging. This can cause extremely stressful and negative work conditions for not only for the perfectionist, but the other professionals they work with.

Higher Levels of Stress and Anxiety. In addition to a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, perfectionists consistently feel an obligation to overdeliver and can be overly disrupted by anything less than 100 percent. This contributes to an unbalanced well-being by causing perfectionists to worry about tiny mistakes, creating unnecessary stress. What’s more, perfectionists tend to develop self-loathing by consistently feeling like they are just not good enough. This extreme attitude toward imperfection can even lead to an overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing fear of failure. With these consistently high levels of stress and anxiety, combined with a propensity to work long, hard hours, it’s no surprise that perfectionists also tend to experience higher levels of burnout.

Trends in Perfectionism and Mitigation Tactics

Interestingly, recent worldwide research has found that over the last three decades, perfectionism among college-aged students has increased noticeably. Researchers noted that these recent generations are not only more demanding of themselves, but they perceive others to be more demanding of them, and in turn, tend to be more demanding of others. However, as I’ve tried to point out in this article, research also shows that striving to be perfect has not shown to be beneficial for employees or employers—and, in fact, can result in significant costs. Particularly in fields such as business development, where overly long workweeks and all-nighters have historically been the norm, we need to be proactive in finding ways to help combat these negative impacts. Though it might pain many of us to do so, the first step is a shift away from encouraging our proposal teams to be “perfect,” toward a healthier mindset of “good enough.” We can do this by stressing excellence over perfection, helping to put things into perspective for our teams, fostering a learning mindset, and stressing the positive.

Stress Excellence Over Perfection. As leaders in business development, capture, and proposals, we need to remind ourselves and others about the difference between the desire to excel and the desire to be perfect. One way to encourage excellence is to help our teams determine the level of importance and measurement of success for various tasks. For each assigned task, help individuals to rate the importance on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Then work to analyze the goal and determine what "good enough" or “excellent” looks like. This helps perfectionists to prioritize tasks and provides them with a more achievable measure of success.

Put Things into Perspective. Another tactic we can use to prevent unhealthy perfectionist behaviors is to help our teams to put their efforts into perspective. If we notice an author spending an inordinate amount of time on a very short section, we can help them put the outcome of their effort into perspective. Ask them whether the time and effort required to reword the same sentence 20 times is likely worth the return that team will get in terms of points from the evaluator. Or could they end up with the same outcome with the sentence they came up with 17 iterations ago? Is all that effort worth the time it took away from them completing other tasks? Is that particular sentence or section worth the stress, time, and agony? The extra stress, time, and agony they’re enduring to make things perfect—are they really worth the impacts on their time, health, friends, and family? Or could they leave the sentence or section as it was several iterations ago and achieve the same net outcome with the customer, undergo less stress, and still have time to do the things they love, including spending time with their friends and family?

Foster a Learning Mindset. Another thing we can do to mitigate the negative impacts of perfectionism is shift our culture from performance mindset to a learning mindset. With a performance mindset, organizations tend to focus on the outcome in terms of a success or failure, which can hinder opportunities for learning and continual improvement. With a learning mindset, mistakes and failures take the form of lessons learned, which become valuable intelligence for learning how to do things differently—and perhaps better—next time.

Stress the Positive. A third tactic we can employ to combat the negative impacts of perfectionism is to look for and celebrate our successes. While understanding where we can improve is particularly important to foster a learning mindset, it’s also just critical to understand where we are performing well. Recognizing these successes will not only improve morale, it will help us and our teams to identify and repeat those actions that are driving success. This is one reason I always include slides dedicated to strengths in both my color team debriefs and lessons learned slide decks.

Final Thoughts

With so many successful business development, capture, and proposal professionals with perfectionist tendencies, this personality trait could definitely be one of the contributing factors driving proposal professionals to work long hours for weeks on end. And with perfectionism increasing among young professionals entering the workplace, it’s even more critical that we help foster a business environment that helps mitigate the negative impacts that perfectionism can yield. The first step shifting away from encouraging our proposal teams to be “perfect” toward a healthier mindset of being “good enough.” We can do this by stressing excellence over perfection, helping to put things into perspective for our teams, fostering a learning mindset, and stressing the positive. Not only will these efforts help cultivate a healthier work ethic among our business development, capture, and proposal teams, these efforts will help combat some of the unhealthy perfectionist compulsions that are actually making our teams less productive. Put simply, to increase productivity and improve business outcomes—instead of encouraging our teams to work harder, we need to encourage them to work smarter.

Written by Ashley Kayes, CP APMP
Senior Proposal Consultant, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI)



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