Appearances Can Be Deceiving (6. Perfectionism)

Good enough for government work—not! The government has its share of perfectionists, as well as its share of those with casual standards. Perfectionism is normally distributed throughout the world. It is neither a good nor a bad thing—rather, its value depends on the needs of a particular situation.

My wife once worked with a government department whose manager was noted for bleeding red ink over all outgoing correspondence generated by their office staff. Not once, but draft after draft. A professional might submit a draft ten times before the perfectionist manager found nothing more to perfect and finally approved the letter for sending.

What causes people to be perfectionistic? In five previous posts, I presented behaviors that are often interpreted in one way but that could have other possible causes. First, we considered how fidgeting is not always impatience. Then, how solitude is not necessarily loneliness. Third, how smiling is not always liking. Fourth, how bravery is not always prompted by courage. And then last week, how volunteering is not always altruistic. I call these multi-source behaviors. Perfectionism is sixth on my list. People engage in perfectionist behavior for diverse reasons.

Tibetan sand art
Gaden Shartse Tibetan Monks, S. C. Hargis, 2010. CC BY-ND 2.0

Swarthmore College social psychologist Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice (2004), identified two extremes of decision-making—satisficing and maximizing. A satisficer is the proverbial good-enough-for-government-work decision-maker who, for example, might go to one office equipment store, look at their desk chairs, try one or two out, and then make a decision on the spot. A maximizer, on the other hand, is the proverbial make-a mountain-out-of-molehill decision-maker who expands every decision into a do-or-die situation. The maximizer might, for example, go to ten office equipment stores, sit in over 50 chairs, comparing prices and features constantly, and finally make a decision, agonizingly, while the satisficer has used the same time to write the great American novel.

So, why do maximizers do it? Why do people need to make every decision a major event? And, on the other hand, why do some not care about zero defects, ever?

As with other multi-meaning terms, perfectionism springs from many motives. Pittsburgh psychologist Pavel Somov has identified four sources of perfectionist behavior:

  • Neuroticism: striving for perfection in hopes of receiving attention and approval—arises out of a personal sense of insecurity
  • Narcissism: striving for perfection, especially on the part of others, as a way of offsetting low sense of self-worth
  • High-principles: striving for perfection as a form of moral, even Puritanical, righteousness, which can cause a judgmental effect toward others around them
  • Hyper-attentive: striving for perfection because of an innate temperament that finds concentration natural and satisfying

I would add these possible causes:

  • Need for control: a form of micromanagement in which everything needs to be done “my way”
  • High will to achieve: a genuine desire to be expert, or even to be the best, similar to the motive that spurs people to aspire to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice described by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson
  • The consequence of mastery: the Dunning-Kruger effect asserts that the best of the best have an acute sense after every performance that they could have done better—they see flaws in their performance that second-tier performers are clueless about
  • Competitive threat: a genuine concern that unless one is focused on perfection that one will be destroyed in business by masterful competitors
  • Following a model: never knowing anything different, as the Tibetan monks who have grown up with peers who model perfection daily
  • Aesthetics: taking deep pleasure in seeing something perfectly executed

Regardless of the motive for the occasions on which we are perfectionistic, we must realize that perfection is not always called for, and is often seen as satisfying more of a personal need that is of no or minimal benefit to others. To develop a sense of when, and when not, to be perfectionist is to develop the habit of asking for feedback from those who know us, and to develop the habit of being receptive to what they suggest.

showing up
Perfection Paralysis, Neshika Bell, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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