Flexible Perfectionism

by | Jul 28, 2014 | Blog, Jessica Chivers | 0 comments

‘Flexible perfectionism’ is a phrase a coachee used last week to describe how she intends to approach stepping into a promotion with ten direct reports whilst continuing to realise one of her top strengths; pride. I wonder if you too are a flexible perfectionist or would like to be? That’s what I’m exploring in this post and my thinking is informed by a paper I read earlier this year, Coaching individuals with perfectionistic tendencies: When high standards help and hinder(Corrie & Palmer, 2014).

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is understood by psychologists to include:

  1. Setting excessively high standards of performance for self (and others)
  2. Sticking rigidly to high standards of performance
  3. Overly harsh evaluations of one’s own performance (and others)
  4. Negative consequences for self and/or others when performance isn’t met


Positive perfectionism

Perfectionism isn’t an inherently bad thing; doing something to a very high standard can be very satisfying for both the doer and the beneficiaries of her outputs. Indeed correlations have been found between perfectionism and:

  • creativity[i]
  • higher academic achievement
  • higher levels of motivation to achieve
  • use of ‘healthy’ coping strategies[ii]
  • increased sense of personal efficacy
  • high self esteem[iii]

In the 70s Don Hamachek wrote about ‘helpful perfectionism’ being a characteristic of those who “…derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labours of a pain-staking effort and who feel free to be less precise as the situation permits.” 20 years later Adkins & Parker (1996) talked about ‘adaptive perfectionism’ as being an active approach to the world and that the desire for success reflects an assumption that high standards are achievable due to underlying beliefs about the self as capable and worthy.


Toxic perfectionism

I believe the significant difference between ‘positive’ and ‘toxic’ perfectionism are the words ‘excessive’ and ‘rigid.’ At its worst, perfectionism is the belief that there is only one right of doing something and come hell or high water you’ll do it that way (or expect someone else to do it that way). Positive perfectionism is about taking account of everything that’s going on in your life and relaxing the standards in a given domain or on a specific task when globally, you or others would be better off for doing so.


What would you do?

Imagine you’ve promised you’ll recreate Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry in a 3D chocolate cake format[iv] for your daughter’s 10th birthday party on Saturday afternoon and then discover the day before that you’ve almost won a new client and there’s prep to do before the final pitching meeting on Monday. On top of that, one of your dear friend’s marriage is in difficulty and she really needs your ear on Friday night. What’s your gut response? What might a positive or ‘flexible perfectionist’ do?

The crux here is to work out what really matters. Easy – it all does; there are essentially three relationships that need protecting/nurturing. My husband tells me that presented with any situation where the given options are not entirely palatable I will find a third, fourth or fifth way of doing things to maximise pleasure/efficiency. With this in mind here’s what I think (as a flexible perfectionist) I’d do.

  1. Keep in mind that ultimately it’s the relationships that matter, not the quality of the cake or the report/presentation I produce for Monday.
  2. Contact my friend and ask whether she’s game for pitching in with a bit of creativity wizardry at my house on Friday night whilst we eat and natter.
  3. Search internet for some alternative Harry Potter cake ideas I can persuade the 10 year old will be equally awesome (and be prepared for her to say no and then to have to propose options:  1. you can have a really good looking 3D Sorting Hat cake or 2. a very tasty but mis-shapen Hogwarts Castle. I don’t have a 10 year old but I do have two demanding youngsters who’ve learned to be flexible and make choices when plans change).
  4. Rally team mates on Friday and suggest we get tasty local deli to deliver working lunch whilst we put our collective creativity together in semi-structured way for two hours to achieve what we need to bowl the client over on Monday.

You’d handle it differently? Please do post your own suggestions – that’s the beauty of flexible perfectionism; there’ll be many ways to achieve a positive result.


9 Ways to keep perfection healthy (10 = too perfect?)

  1. Lessen the link between achievement and self-worth – remind yourself you are a worthwhile human being even when you don’t hit the high standards you would like.
  2. Spend time engaged in activities that make you feel good simply because you’re doing it/ them, rather than because of any output linked to it (which you then may judge as high or low achievement which may spoil the experience or the memory).
  3. Time-box activities which you might be prone to spend too much time on getting ‘just right.’
  4. Keep the bigger picture in mind and ask yourself whether perfectionism is helping or hindering you overall.
  5. Keep in mind whether your striving for excellence is good for the people around you.
  6. Experiment with new ways of doing things and praise yourself for the act of having a go at doing things differently.
  7. Seek feedback from others about the way you set about doing things rather than just what you deliver. A simple way to do this is to ask the person to come up with three words to describe your approach to the task – she or he may say things like ‘energetic,’ ‘collaborative,’ and ‘committed’ which are wonderful, positive words irrespective of what you produce.
  8. When you notice you’re thinking there’s only one way things can be done, force yourself to generate one or two other ways.
  9. Allow yourself some time each day/week/month (depending on your needs) to strive for perfection. Activities that you will want to look back on are particularly good for this – the speech you give at your mum’s 60th birthday; the leaving gift you choose for an admired colleague; the decisions you make about the garden you’ve saved for five years to have overhauled and so on.


Want to improve workplace relations?

I’m particularly interested in working with line managers who are showing signs of ‘toxic perfectionism’ to help her or him shape better workplace relations. Equally, helping employees who report to such a person, ‘manage upwards,’ is something I’ve enjoyed over the last decade. If this month’s topic has stirred something up for you that you think it would be prudent to address, please be in touch.

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