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While perfectionists can still be successful business owners, evidence suggests they face an uphill battle. Here's how to spot and mitigate perfectionist tendencies in yourself. — Getty Images/spukkato

Perfectionists tend to be extremely motivated, highly engaged and willing to work long hours, research has found. But the relentless pursuit of excellence can generate implausible standards that add unproductive time to projects and prevent a business owner or their employees from ever delivering on goals. And that’s just the start of perfectionism problems.

Perfectionism is not a binary human trait. It’s a spectrum of tendencies along which we all exist. For some, “good enough” is a productive mantra. But those with strong perfectionist tendencies have unrelenting expectations for themselves, and sometimes for others, too. For these people, success is viewed in all-or-nothing terms, said Brian Swider, associate professor in the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business.

“I'm either perfect, or what I'm doing is terrible,” Swider explained.

In an analysis of 95 studies on the topic, Swider and colleagues found no evidence that perfectionists perform better, nor that their exacting standards lead to higher-quality work. When high standards are achieved, the perfectionist will see the results as expected and as no cause for celebration. This unrelenting pressure to achieve and the resulting lack of satisfaction can fuel unnecessary stress and anxiety for themselves and others, which can lead to burnout and even depression from the top down.

“Perfectionists go to work every day and don’t find joy in their work,” Swider told CO—.

How to recognize perfectionism problems

There are several ways to spot perfectionist tendencies in yourself and others. Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist and author of “The Healthy Mind Toolkit” has identified several aspects of perfectionism that get in the way of productivity. Perfectionists...

  • Like to control and micromanage everything, are bad at delegating and fail to prioritize important decisions over the unimportant.
  • Feel morally obligated to overdeliver and may imagine catastrophic consequences of failure.
  • Are annoyed when they can’t fully achieve a goal, take on more than they can handle, procrastinate and are unwilling to adopt new work habits.

Swider and his colleagues, looking at the psychology in a different way, identified two types of perfectionists:

  • Excellence-seekers who demand high standards of themselves and others.
  • Failure-avoiders who obsessively worry their work isn’t good enough and that others won’t respect them if they’re not perfect.

Perfectionists go to work every day and don’t find joy in their work.

Brian Swider, associate professor in the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business.

A person can have either or both of these tendencies to varying degrees, Swider explained. But there’s an important difference:

Perfectionists who have more excellence-seeking tendencies are more likely to exhibit supposedly beneficial traits like high engagement and willingness to work long hours. Detrimental effects like anxiety and burnout are more common among those seeking to avoid failure. However, Swider’s research did not find any evidence to suggest either type of person gets more done than non-perfectionists.

(It must be noted that fear of failure is not exclusive to perfectionists — it stops many people from even starting a business.)

If there’s any single hallmark of excessive perfection, it’s the lack of satisfaction in a job well done.

“Perfectionists will naturally set goals that are not consistently attainable,” Swider said. “Or if they do attain them, then all of a sudden that goal becomes the benchmark and they have to do better.”

Research does not prove that perfectionists can never be successful business owners. But the evidence does suggest they face an uphill battle.

“People who exhibit perfectionist tendencies and are successful are presumably successful in spite of those tendencies,” Swider speculated. “Their success broadly, not just performance, but how they think about their work and their overall life satisfaction, is probably going to benefit from trying to reduce or mitigate some of their natural perfectionistic tendencies.”

How to avoid the perfectionist’s productivity trap

Business owners can benefit from recognizing that quickly producing more widgets that are good enough may drive greater success than a slow rollout of fewer, presumably perfect widgets... or none at all.

Boyes offered tactics to avoid the perfectionist’s productivity trap:

  • Pay attention to the good feeling you get when you give up decision-making to an employee.
  • Consider the important things you’re ignoring, including health and family.
  • Regularly consider whether your habits — the things you do religiously, like arriving every day at a certain time — are really necessary.

Most important, Swider said, is for small business owners to set realistic goals and appreciate and celebrate even minor successes. Don’t, for example, set goals for Amazon-like growth or Apple-level market penetration.

“If you don't reach them, you're going to feel disappointed,” he said. “You're going to get stressed out and anxious about it when, in reality, your goals probably were unrealistic to begin with.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published March 11, 2021