Why Being a Perfectionist May Actually Hurt Your Career in the Long Run

Perfectionists are often highly sought-after employees, thanks to their careful attention to detail and outstanding work. However, there is such a thing as going overboard. Here's how to avoid being a perfectionist, to a fault.
how to avoid being a perfectionist

“So you think you’re perfect?” This is the response I sometimes hear when I share that I am a recovering perfectionist. 

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. As perfectionists, our defining characteristic is a tendency to set unreasonably high standards and then beat ourselves up when we inevitably don’t meet them.

READ — Avoiding Founder Burnout: A Guide on Fighting Hustle Culture for Entrepreneurs

Perfectionism is a tricky business when it comes to our careers. For many of us, we credit our early workplace successes to our perfectionist approach. And that makes a lot of sense because when we’re operating from a place of health, perfectionists are amazing colleagues. We are conscientious, organized, helpful, ethical and reliable – to name just a few of the positive qualities we bring to any team. Over time, as we are rewarded for these traits, our perfectionism may crowd out other approaches, and it can eventually become the approach we default to day-in and day-out.

However, when our perfectionism becomes the primary mode we operate from in our jobs, it can quickly become the thing that limits us in our careers. We can experience meaningful burnout, exhaustion and anxiety. We feel incredibly alone in our stress, often feeling like we can’t confide in others about how messy and precarious everything feels underneath the surface. My research among high-achievers has shown that, for these reasons, perfectionists are 29% more burned out than their peers and 18% less satisfied in their jobs. It is not surprising, then, that perfectionists are also 21% more likely than average to be considering a job change.

Often, when operating from a place of perfectionism, our primary motivator is fear of failure or being exposed for our flaws and “who we really are.” That can lead to a lot of tendencies that limit our careers over time. For instance, we can find ourselves:

  • Afraid to take risks, hindering creativity and innovation.
  • Delaying decision-making until we have perfect information or solutions.
  • Micromanaging the work of others, creating cultures of fear or frustration.
  • Opting out of jobs or new opportunities entirely.

Again, it makes so much sense that many of us end up going down this path. After all, we were rewarded for this approach earlier in our careers. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can let go and in the process empower others; we can make mistakes and not beat ourselves up, becoming better leaders as we learn from them; we can be imperfect but still excellent; we can talk about our needs and fears so others can feel proud as they offer support. 

READ — Why It’s Important to Invest in Yourself — and 4 Ways to Do So

I wish there was an “easy button” when it comes to letting go of the patterns of perfectionism that limit our professional success and personal satisfaction. Progress in this arena requires intentional practice, unwinding of long-held assumptions, and some initial discomfort. That said, even taking a first small step can help us experience the relief, pride and satisfaction that goes hand-in-hand with breaking free of the perfectionist trap. Try out one of these approaches the next time you feel yourself shifting into a perfectionist way of operating: 

Start questioning the expectations and goals you set for yourself!

Are they grounded in reality, or do they reflect the unreasonable standards of a perfectionist? Do they focus on the one thing that matters most, or do they assume that everything matters?

Notice the unconscious rules and policies you live by in your work life.

Are any of these rules rooted in an excessive standard of perfectionism? One of my own perfectionist rules that I’ve lived by in the past is “I should run through every work presentation as many times as possible before giving it.” As I started to question this rule, I freed up my time for more important work and my presentations shifted from polished and rigid to creative and connecting.

Turn to a list of 2-3 actions you can reliably take to jumpstart yourself into a different mindset when you feel yourself falling into perfectionist patterns.

My top three actions include a brief outdoor walk, shaking it out to “This Is Me” by Keala Settle, and sending a silly GIF to my husband that helps me take things a little less seriously. 

Most importantly, you can start to have conversations with your colleagues about these topics, surfacing the perfectionism that is driving a lot of common workplace fear and behavior. When these topics are brought out into the open and discussed, I’ve seen that employees reliably increase job performance, improve job satisfaction and sustainability, become more effective managers, and drive increased feelings of belonging. 

It may feel uncomfortable, even unnatural at first. But stick with it – I promise your career will thank you for it.


Ashley Carter is the Founder and CEO of Beyond Perfect, which helps high-achievers let go of the perfectionist patterns that limit their professional success and personal satisfaction. Her time at Harvard, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and leading multiple high-profile social impact initiatives provided ample opportunity to develop perfectionist patterns; the community of recovering perfectionists she has developed through Beyond Perfect helps her unwind those patterns.

Categories: Business Insights, Culture, Featured Articles, Home, Management & Leadership, Web Exclusives