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Pros and cons of being a perfectionist at work

Should you stop striving for an A when a B will do?
Beth Braccio Hering, Special to CareerBuilder

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Sure, everyone should want to do a good job at work. But when striving to do well becomes a quest for perfection, problems can arise. Here, experts (and a few self-described perfectionists) share the benefits and dangers of trying to make sure everything is done the absolute best.

The plus side

"My boss can rely on me to perform and maintain deadlines, and my work needs little to no correction," states Kathryn Hill of San Antonio, Texas, who does marketing and public relations for a small business. "Projects are well-researched and everything is organized."

Indeed, perfectionists can be prized workers. Superiors, co-workers and customers often appreciate their ability to "do it right." Likewise, consistent performance at such a high level can be a source of satisfaction and pride for the ambitious employee.

The costs of high expectations

When the bar is set so high, though, it can be increasingly difficult to keep measuring up to high expectations.

"Everything I do must be the best work possible," says Dawson Walton, a full-time plumber and part-time writer from Minnesota. "Yes, at first the boss and co-workers are impressed, but after a while, more and more is expected from you because of your standards."

When working on projects with a person who's a stickler for excellence, others may not give 100 percent because they know the slack will be picked up. Similarly, team members may become disgruntled when their decisions and output are being scrutinized by someone who constantly believes there is room for improvement.

"I work so hard at keeping a productive and money-making flow to the business that the boss comes to me when there's a problem with productivity," Hill notes. "I, in turn, get flustered when I assign projects for others that are pushed aside and therefore have to hand-hold. Then, the hand-holding becomes a crutch to the employee. My perfectionism has made me a micromanager."

When job performance suffers

In an effort to make everything "just so," some perfectionists run out of time and energy to complete tasks. "Remember, work is about producing output. Like it or not, reputations are formed around the presence of output, not the absence of minor imperfections," notes Ed Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics in Albuquerque, N.M., and author of "Make Work Great" and "Four Secrets to Liking Your Work."

While someone might produce the greatest report in the world, it is of little use if it arrives too late to a meeting. Likewise, providing the boss with information on five competitors when he only asked for the top three can be an inefficient use of time.

"Of course, you could start working long hours and pulling all-nighters in order to get the job done on time and still make it perfect, but that's a short-term strategy at best. The more burned out you get, the more likely you are to make glaring errors later," Muzio says.

Stifling career aspirations

Afraid of making the wrong move or getting into a position that will be too demanding to always be perfect, perfectionists sometimes limit their own advancement.

According to Elizabeth Freedman, author of "Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace without Hanging Yourself" and "The MBA Student's Job-Seeking Bible," perfectionists tend to be "big-time procrastinators" when it comes to career decisions. "These are folks who find themselves getting ready to get ready to make a big career move, which they never make. For example, they know that they need to start networking, which they fully intend to do once their résumé is in order, schedule becomes less crazy, website is redesigned, life is perfect ..."

Other potential advancement obstacles for perfectionists include:

  • Passing up key assignments for fear of not being able to do them perfectly.

  • Straining office relationships by coming off as picky, aloof or overly anxious.

  • Failing to ask for help when needed in an effort to always look like everything is under control.

  • Taking criticism too personally instead of growing from it.

  • Ignoring gut feelings about career goals in favor of endlessly agonizing about the "right" path.

The fine line

So what can a perfectionist do to find a better balance?

"Stop striving to get an A when a B will do," Freedman says. "This isn't school anymore, and grades don't count. If you find yourself procrastinating on a task that you know you need to do because you aren't really ready or you won't be able to do it 'just right,' force yourself to take action anyway. Taking imperfect action is far better than taking no action."

Adds Muzio, "Realize that sometimes good enough is good enough. Don't give up your drive for quality, but keep it in balance with the rest of the picture at work -- and the rest of your life outside."

Beth Braccio Hering researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for Follow @CareerBuilder on Twitter.

Last Updated: 07/12/2010 - 6:02 PM

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