The Pursuit of Perfection

By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of AnswerStatBased on the title of this article, StarTrek fans may be anticipating an enlightened discourse on Seven of Nine’s unremitting pursuit of Borg-style perfection. Alas, this is not the case. (If you are disappointed, I recommend watching, “The Omega Directive” – StarTrek Voyager, season 4, episode 19 – and then consider the high cost of the unrestrained pursuit of perfection.)

Instead, I am speaking of perfectionism in the workplace, among your coworkers, and emanating from your staff. Do you want a call center of perfectionist agents? Some managers say “yes,” whereas others respond with a resounding “no.” The informed answer is, “it all depends.” Here’s why:

Of that portion of the populace who are perfectionists, some are blindly or proudly so. Others are self-aware of possessing this characteristic and informed about it; I call them recovering perfectionists. A self-aware or recovering perfectionist understands this condition, knowing how to tap into and celebrate the many strengths and benefits of pursuing excellence. At the same time, they know to guard against its limiting, self-defeating, and even paralyzing facets.

Doing research on perfectionism reveals a host of ominous and debilitating traits, starting with compulsiveness and going downhill from there. However, informed or recovering perfectionists can tap into the positive aspects of their natural tendencies when appropriate and needed, that is, when it is to their advantage to do so. At the same time, they can usually avoid being handicapped by perfectionism’s alluring snares.

For a perfectionist, there are many traits which provide great value in the workplace and especially a call center:

  • Produce quality work: perfectionists tend to produce high quality work. They take pleasure in excellence and find satisfaction in a job well-done.
  • Exceed expectations: if the boss expects a handwritten report, the perfectionist will type it; if achieving a 99% rating is admirable, the purist will aim for 99.9 – and then 100!  Being above average is not good enough; being the best is a self-imposed requirement.
  • Go the extra mile: perfectionists often go the extra mile. If a report needs to be five pages long, they will turn in six. If a product needs to have three new features, they will add a fourth and maybe a fifth. If they set a record last month, they will strive to better it this month. In sports, this results in shooting free throws while the rest of the team showers or taking 30 minutes of extra batting practice – every day.
  • Set high standards: another trait is that perfectionists set high standards, both for themselves and others. As long as the standards are reasonably attainable, it is acceptable, and even admirable, for the perfectionist to set a bar high – for him or herself. (However, foisting faultlessness on the others does little more than establish the groundwork for future frustration, disappointment, and conflict between the precision-minded and the rest of the world.)

Of course, there are counterparts to these traits. One is procrastination. It is said that the perfectionist subconsciously reasons that the results of their work will never be just right – no mater how much time is invested – so why start? In fact, the project is often delayed until the last possible moment, so that at least there is a plausible excuse as to why it’s not perfect: “I didn’t have much time to work on it!” Taking this to an extreme, some perfectionists miss deadlines and blow past due dates – often stressing about or agonizing over some trivial or irrelevant detail.

Another side-effect associated with perfectionism is problems making quick decisions. Sometimes, they need to “sleep on it” to be assured of the correctness of their judgment. Sometimes decisions can be agonizingly difficult for them to reach. This, most likely, is because they fear reaching the wrong conclusion, that is, a less than perfect one. The urge is to delay a pronouncement, while awaiting more information, so that a proper and informed analysis can be considered. Unfortunately, this mental paralysis is seldom cured by amassing more data.

Over the years, I have often interviewed perfectionists during job interviews. As it becomes more and more apparent that I am talking to a perfectionist, I segue into a special interview segment, just for them. “So,” I inquire, “Do you consider yourself to be a perfectionist?”

Their responses fall into one of three categories. The first one is shock or denial. If a person who has just exhibited several perfectionist traits is taken aback at the thought of being called one or disavows any connection whatsoever, I judge them to either be disingenuous or lacking in self-awareness. Neither are characteristics that I seek in an employee.

The second type of response to my perfectionist query, is unabashed pride and total satisfaction in possessing this quality. To make sure I am not rushing to a snap judgment, I give them one last chance for redemption. “What,” I ask, “do you see as the weaknesses of being a perfectionist?” Occasionally, they will comprehend the importance of that question, using an astute answer to move them from this category over to category three. Usually, however, they give me a blank stare, as if my inquiry was nonsensical, responding that there is no downside or that they don’t understand what I am asking. In similar fashion, I don’t want to work with a perfectionist that has failed to realize the turmoil and trouble they can produce by their proclivity for perfection

The third type of perfectionist applicant smiles at this question and begins to share their self-awareness about the shortcomings of how their version of perfectionism is manifested. They openly identify the less then admirable ways that it reveals itself in them and often proceed to communicate how they guard themselves and others from this tendency. This is a person I want on my team. Yes, they may require a bit more management effort from time to time, but doing so is worth the extra energy as the results will be an employee who produces quality work, frequently exceeds expectations, goes the extra mile, and sets high standards for themselves.  Isn’t that who you want working in your call center, too?

Peter DeHaan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From the August/September 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]