Why Perfectionist Students Struggle in the Workplace

Why Perfectionist Students Struggle in the Workplace

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On one hand, perfectionists create high-quality outputs and hard workers. On the other hand, perfectionists struggle with impossible expectations and finite resources. While school may be forgiving to negative perfectionist tendencies, the workplace is not.

The two factors that encourage perfectionism

Before we dive into a perfectionist’s struggle, we must first understand where it stems from. Different environments encourage different personality types. Perfectionism often shines in the presence of two main conditions: attainable perfection and infinite resources.

1. Attainable perfection

Perfectionists will only be satisfied when they achieve perfection. When perfection isn’t defined or attainable, they will always find flaws in their work. Perfectionists thrive when given concrete and attainable goals to work towards.

2. Infinite resources

Perfectionism is a beast that consumes significant resources for minimal gain. Resources can come in the form of time, money, and labor. When perfectionists have access to unlimited resources, they can strive for perfection without pushback.

Perfectionism in the real world

Perfectionists truly shine when given attainable goals and unlimited resources. Unfortunately these conditions won’t always be met in the real world. This is one of the many challenges new graduates face when adjusting from school to work. Perfectionists must manage their urge to perfect as it may not be feasible.

School systems reward perfectionism

School is one of the few situations where the two conditions are present.

Grading systems provide a metric that clearly defines perfection, making it attainable. This is particularly true for objective courses. An example of this would be math tests. Grading systems deem that 100% is the perfect score and is earned by correctly answering all the questions on the test.

Students are also effectively given unlimited time to complete their work. Schoolwork is expected to be completed on the student’s own time. While it’s not healthy, overachievers can sacrifice their leisure time and pull all-nighters for that perfect score. Whether it’s to ace an exam or submit a flawless essay, they can keep working right up until the deadline.

Workplaces punish perfectionism

Unfortunately, the workplace is not as friendly for perfectionists.

Perfection is much harder to achieve in the workplace. Since perfection is defined subjectively, perfectionists often don’t know when to throw in the towel. Moving goalposts are also common, which makes perfection even harder to attain. Without concrete and well-defined goals to work with, perfectionists will work tirelessly towards perfection but may never reach it.

As progress approaches perfection, additional effort tends to suffer from diminishing returns. Workplace budgets likely won’t tolerate their team pouring time and money for minimal returns.

A perfectionist’s transition from school to work

As a student, perfectionism may have been an advantage. However, perfectionism can hamper your success in many real-world situations.

In the workplace, blowing the project budget is heavily looked down upon. This is especially true if you’re overspending the budget on inconsequential improvements. Meanwhile, your boss or client may not even appreciate the effort.

It’s also common to juggle multiple projects at once, dividing your attention. This makes it difficult to focus on even one project.

Recognizing how it can affect your performance is an important step to overcoming perfectionism. We must shed our perfectionist tendencies that had been praised in school and acknowledge that the real world plays by different rules. In the workplace, we must look beyond the minute details and ration our resources efficiently.

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