mental health perfectionism scale

As business change professionals, our job is to focus on the wellbeing of our stakeholders during change. However do we always give our own mental health the same care and attention?

For example, how do we cope working in business change if we are perfectionists? Perfectionism is something I live with, and often come across in the business change managers I train, coach and mentor.

Perfectionism can cause high levels of stress and anxiety for business change professionals. In this blog, I explore why this happens and share some tips to help manage perfectionism whilst working successfully in business change.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is not about being perfect, rather it is:

“the relentless striving for extremely high standards and judging self-worth based on the ability to achieve these”

Perfectionism has a lot of good things going for it. Because failure makes perfectionists feel bad, they tend to succeed. This makes them attractive to employers and they often rise quickly in early careers when tenacity, high quality outputs and sheer hard work bring tangible results.

However, the constant drive for demanding standards can have negative consequences. The problems start when perfectionists start setting themselves goals which are unachievable or only achievable at great cost to their mental and physical health and general wellbeing.

For example, I often see perfectionists struggle with exam preparation in the APMG Change Management course. The pass mark for the exams is 50%, but perfectionists often set themselves goals of 90-100%. The fact that professional examiners have set the pass mark at 50% makes no difference. The only standard that matters to the perfectionist is the one they set themselves, however unrealistic it may be. The delegates then:

  • suffer from increased levels of stress and anxiety throughout the week by trying to achieve their unrealistic goal
  • miss out on opportunities for great discussions on change management issues because they are so focused on the exam
  • pass the exams with well over 50%, but feel they have let themselves down by not achieving their unrealistic target

Sounds familiar? If so, read on…………

Why business change challenges perfectionists

Organisational change is the perfect environment for perfectionists to set unachievable goals and standards:

  • Organisational change is complex and risky, so the potential for unpredictable outcomes is high
  • Complex change often involves multiple stakeholders with differing opinions and motivations, so success is hard to define and realise
  • Change involves doing things which have not been done before, so errors and misjudgements are commonplace
  • Organisational change is often done in very stressful situations, where blame cultures and negative fault finding are prevalent
  • Business change managers support others to cope with change and transition – an incredibly complex task where success depends on input from those being supported as well as those doing the supporting

All these factors increase the risk of failure. Perfectionists judge their self-worth on success, so can experience high levels of stress and anxiety in the change environment. They tend to work harder and harder to achieve their goals, which can come at a huge personal cost.

How can I manage my perfectionism in business change?

I am very proud of being a perfectionist. I like to do things well and I get satisfaction from succeeding in difficult situations and knowing I have tried my best.

However, there is a paradox of perfectionism that the drive to do well can actually impair performance. Not only can perfectionists suffer stress, anxiety and even burnout from continually setting and striving for
unachievable goals, but fear of making mistakes can actually prevent us from taking risks, trying out new things and therefore achieving the perfection we desire.

Here are a few tips I have found useful when I have been in danger of ‘letting the great become the enemy of the good’:

Focus on excellence rather than perfection

In business change, we will never achieve perfection, but we can often achieve excellence. This may mean making a solution acceptable to many people, if not loved by all. Or trying out a new workshop technique and getting feedback on how it can be improved so it can be run better next time.

Focusing goals on achieving excellence gives us permission to try things out and make errors. This encourages us to experiment and learn lessons in order to improve – a much healthier approach than fearing to try in case of failure.

Become a reflective practitioner

Success in business change is often a collective effort. We as business change managers can only facilitate, coach and encourage our stakeholders in new ways of thinking and behaving. Ultimate success is a shared responsibility.

Reflecting positively on our work can show us the limits of our influence, and help us find was to work differently through challenging situations. Using a good framework to reflect and learn can help perfectionists move away from self-blame into positive action and improvement.

Keep in touch with others in business change

It is only when I talk to business change colleagues, that I am reminded quite how complex and challenging our work is.

Developing a healthy support network with others working in business change can help perfectionists to see how colleagues approach their work, and what they view as success. Discussing specific issues you may be having with your change can also generate new insights and ideas of how to approach it.

Agree realistic targets with a non-perfectionist

Find a non-perfectionist you respect and agree realistic success measures with them. Make sure they understand what you are trying to achieve and the constraints and challenges of environment in which you are working.

Review your progress with them regularly. Have the courage to ignore the constant internal craving to make the measures harder. Then go out and deliver your change with the excellence you are capable of, and your stakeholders deserve!