The high cost of perfectionism: How it kills creativity

by | Apr 30, 2021 | Innovation

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This article was originally published by B&T.

Perfectionist? If you are, you are not alone. A recent study has found that millennials are the generation most predisposed to perfectionism (1). Perfectionism is a personality characteristic in which people set unrealistic standards of performance with overly critical evaluations of self and others.

If you’ve ever been to a job interview and mentioned perfectionism as a strength and then re-framed it as a weakness, that’s also how researchers describe perfectionism with a variety of names for the two aspects, a positive and negative, adaptive and maladaptive, or excellence-seeking and failure-avoiding.

Excellence-seeking perfectionism involves setting high self-imposed standards, even when ‘good enough’ would suffice. This ‘positive’ side is associated with motivation and engagement. Failure-avoiding perfectionism is about fear of not reaching performance standards, with concerns about how others perceive them. This ‘negative’ side is associated with stress, anxiety, depression, and even burnout. Both dimensions can co-exist to varying degrees in a single person.

Although perfectionism drives motivation and engagement, a recent study has highlighted that the benefits do not outweigh the negative effects on mental wellbeing. Perfectionism is increasingly considered as more of a hindrance than a help, and this is also the case with its impact on creativity. Creativity is a skill that is becoming increasingly important across all professions, as identified by the World Economic Forum. Creativity is even proposed to drive the fourth industrial revolution. 

Although research has shown creativity has a genetic component, fortunately for us less genetically gifted creatures, like any skill, we each have the ability to develop our creative potential. Increasing individual creativity can be achieved through specific tools and techniques, along with the right management practices and environment that supports it. For the perfectionist, it is stress and a fear of failure that is working against creativity.

Stress. When perfectionists feel overly stressed, creativity suffers. Whilst a certain level of stress is beneficial for creativity, when it exceeds our ability to cope, we feel overwhelmed and creativity drops. In order to reduce stress to optimal levels that maximise creativity, we need managers who can identify people with this personality characteristic. Managers should work with perfectionists to ensure their goals are not excessive and are SMART. Managers should take care not to micro-manage these people as they are already self-monitoring. It’s also important to find casual, fun opportunities for team members to build relationships. Workplace friendships have been shown to reduce the negative effects of perfectionism, reducing stress and creating trust, which is vital for creating an environment in which people feel safe to share their ‘crazy’ ideas.

Fear of failure. A fear of failure can deter perfectionists from even getting involved in projects requiring creativity. And if they do get involved, they may hold back, procrastinating, especially if the job or task is outside their area of expertise. When perfectionists come up with ideas, the tendency to judge and filter ideas that are ‘good enough’ to share reduces the quantity and quality of their creative contribution. To temper the effects of fear of failure on creativity, it’s important to set expectations. One way to do this is to get people to demonstrate the behaviour you seek, such as asking people to share ideas that may be perceived as ‘crazy’ or ‘way out’.

Given the increasing importance of creativity, organisations need to understand how the rise in perfectionism can kill it. Fortunately, as we understand more about these areas, there are actions managers can take to mitigate the effects and maximise creativity.

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