On Friday night, my perfectionism gave me two black eyes.
It began with good intentions. Figuring I’d get some exercise between dinner and going to the movies, I decided to sprint over the hill between my house and the golf cart path. Upon reaching the crest, I looked down the slope and distinctly heard the angel on one shoulder warn, “You’re going to fall down that.”
The devil on the other shoulder screamed, “Slowing down is for cowards! Full speed ahead, Wonder Woman!”
It certainly was a cinematic moment, but one from a slapstick comedy rather than action flick. I landed in a made-for-Hollywood face-plant, and a storm grate was kind enough to cushion my fall.
Two black eyes, a cut and possibly fractured nose, and a strained left thumb ligament and perhaps chipped bone — none of this compares with the damage done to my ego as I sat in the emergency room the following day. All because my quest to be that perfect runner-slash-superhero made me push myself so hard that I pushed myself right down a hill.
Coincidentally, Friday was also the day the University of Bath published a study that compiled more than 9,000 samples of research on how perfectionism causes high stress and increases the risk of burnout in sports, education and in the workplace.
When I read it, it seemed pretty obvious. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed important, especially in light of my recent experience. I talked with Thomas Curran, a University of Bath lecturer in sport psychology who co-authored the study.
Although Curran wasn’t surprised that all three venues showed positive correlations between an obsession with results and eventual exhaustion, he said the relationship was strongest in the workplace.
So what can learning leaders do about it? I know that perfectionism is probably hard-wired into my brain, but Curran said studies indicate that more than half of the variances in perfectionism are learned — our environment has a strong influence over it. OK, so my Catholic school experience had something to do with it, too.
In today’s performance-focused workplace, high churn means performance is all that’s keeping the average worker employed. Meanwhile, results are often put ahead of engagement, personal growth or fun. These two factors create a perfect recipe for perfectionism — and for burnout.
“They [perfectionists] are chronically brooding over their performance and catastrophizing about the consequences of falling short,” Curran said. “So rather than motivating, performance contingencies are debilitating.”
This crippling sensation kills not only a worker’s spirit but also their ability to contribute to the organization. Just as I pushed myself so hard during Friday night’s jog that I probably can’t exercise for two weeks, employees are pushing themselves so hard they’re burning out and costing companies good work in the long run — pun not originally intended.
“We live in an era of flexible labor and insecure work, and this doesn’t look like abating,” Curran said. “Employers would do well to consider that a happy workforce is a productive workforce, particularly in a 21st century economy that increasingly relies on innovation to push consumption.”
So what are some actionable solutions? Curran points to some companies, such as Google, that reward employees for failure, depressurize the office and promote work-life balance.
Make employees take lunch. Host a cocktail hour that prohibits shop-talk. Set deadlines a little early so they can be more flexible. Just getting managers to slow down and encourage their employees to do the same could do the trick.
My fix? Yell louder than shoulder perfectionist-angels so you don’t go sprinting into a storm drain.