Perfectionists have high personal standards and are highly self-critical. The personality trait is often associated with conscientiousness (a strong predictor of success), virtue, and high achievement.
However far from giving themselves a competitive edge, it can lead to poorer performance at work.
The trait is also closely associated with burnout – a syndrome associated with chronic stress which manifests as extreme fatigue, perceived reduced accomplishment, and eventual detachment.
I once coached a person who was such a perfectionist and who worked in a PR role for a company that was about to go public. There was a lot of pressure on her so her boss gave her an assistant who was a graduate but had a poor grasp of English grammar and spelling (why does that not surprise me these days?) The result was that she increased her workload double checking all the work done by her new assistant. End result – burnout. She left the company and eventually found satisfaction working as a freelancer.
In work setting where poor performance has negative outcomes perfectionist tendencies can be exacerbated. “Rather than being more productive perfectionists are likely to find the workplace quite difficult and stressful. If they are unable to cope with demands and uncertainty in their workplace they will experience a range of emotional difficulties” said Andrew Hill, associate professor at York St Johns.
His co-researcher at Bath, sports lecturer Thomas Grant, said “As a society we tend to hold perfectionism as a sign of virtue or high achievement. Yet our findings show that perfectionism is a largely destructive trait. Instead diligence, flexibility and perseverance are far better qualities“.
Perfectionists need to have better work-life balance and less pressurised working environments together with a greater acceptance of failure in order to mitigate the negative effects associated with perfectionism.
Psychologists at Duke University, North Carolina, investigated the downside of being competent at your job and guess what? You probably won’t be thanked for it and will probably be given more to do as a result.
Lazy workers know how to mess up the simplest jobs so they don’t get asked again or to complain about their workload. On the other hand reliable workers – those who scored high on self-control, a trait similar to the Big 5 trait of conscientiousness which correlates highly with reliability – get work dumped on them by their colleagues and maybe even worse it happens when they get home too.
In general they found that “people not only have higher expectations of these (reliable) people but tend to assign them more work”. The researchers felt that such people deserved better recognition and more rewards. I can’t disagree with that.
According to research at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business it’s people who are more guilt prone who make better leaders.
Using the TOSCA (Test of Self-Conscious Affect) and performance ratings Francis Flynn and Rebecca Schaumberg found that those employees with higher levels of guilt were also the ones with the higher performance evaluations.
They were also seen as more committed to the organisation and seen as stronger leaders by their peers.
Even stranger you might think is the fact that there were also more likely to accept redundancies as being necessary for the company and carry them out. They may feel guilty about it but they can rationalise layoffs in the interests of the organisation. So they see the bigger picture.
Previous research has shown that being conscientious is a good predictor of employee performance and an important element in effective leadership and recruiters often look for stable extraverted personality types. This is the first research to suggest that employing people who are more neurotic has advantages for the employers.
And you might think that behaving in this way might have a downside for the individuals but according to Flynn they are no more stressed than other employees and don’t have lower levels of job satisfaction.
It seems that there is also a connection between guilt proneness and altruistic behaviour in terms of giving to charities and helping out colleagues.
The research was carried out in a Fortune 500 company’s finance department so may not be applicable in other functions. But it’s intriguing and if you believe that we should have more diversity in terms of personality variables you will probably welcome it.
Source: HBR Jan-Feb 2011 issue
These traits, which help their partners to be advance their careers are: conscientiousness, reliability, and diligence.
These are the traits commonly found in successful executives with conscientiousness linked to success in life generally i.e. you do what you say you’ll do.
The study examined 5,000 married couples aged between 19 and 80 years of age and tracked them over 5 years to see how well they did at work. They also asked them to describe their partners.
Those who progressed the most in their chosen occupation had a spouse who scored high in conscientiousness, regardless of sex.
The author of the study, Joshua Jackson, talking about the results said “ It is not only your own personality that influences the experiences that lead to greater occupational success, but that your spouse’s personality matters too”.
He said it’s not just about your spouse encouraging you to ask for a pay rise or promotion but the influence of your spouse’s daily behaviour which influences you over time.
Conscientiousness can mean a spouse sharing the domestic chores or emulating the other person’s personality traits making them reliable and diligent employees.
This is where HR has been getting it wrong! Instead of using personality questionnaires to assess the applicant they should be inviting the applicants’ spouses in for assessment as well. Of course that doesn’t help if the applicant doesn’t have one – unless they borrow one for the occasion from a successful friend.