The world has been forced to acknowledge that business as usual is not always as easy as it used to be. There are some situations where we simply cannot control what happens, and we need the courage to let things go when it is time. For people who lean towards perfectionism, this loss of control may be devastating to how they function and lead. 

Perfectionism May Be A Physical Characteristic Of The Brain

Research suggests there is a neuroanatomical basis for perfectionism in the brain. One study found that two aspects of perfectionism (doubt over actions and concern over mistakes) were positively correlated with grey matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex.

These patients also reported more anxiety and depression.1 Learning to find acceptance and resisting the urge to seek perfection may be more difficult for some people because of brain anatomy. Their brains may literally have structures that make them become perfectionists. Understanding that our brain structure may predispose us towards perfectionism can increase awareness, allowing us to become more intentional about how we think and behave.

How Does the Brain of a Perfectionist Differ?

When we think of a person who tends to be a perfectionist, it may be surprising that their brains may differ from those of typical people. Some potential differences include the following:

  1. Increase activity in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning, decision-making and impulse control. Studies have shown perfectionists may have more activity in this part of the brain. Because the prefrontal cortex is involved with planning, this may help explain why perfectionists tend to plan what they do and how they behave carefully.2
  2. Increased activation of the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes our positive and negative emotions. Perfectionists could be more likely to worry and feel anxious about a situation. Research shows there is greater activation within the amygdala when exposed to negative feedback or stress.3
  3. Differences in grey matter volume. Some studies have found that perfectionists might vary in the volume of grey matter in specific brain regions compared to neurotypical individuals, including the anterior cingular cortex and the insula. These parts of the brain regulate emotions and detect errors, which could help explain the self-criticism and anxiety that perfectionists often experience.1
  4. Increased levels of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is important in motivation and reward-seeking behaviour. Higher levels of dopamine may drive a desire for more recognition and achievement.4

While research has undoubtedly yet to unlock all the answers, scientists are rapidly increasing their understanding of the neural mechanisms associated with perfectionism. Understanding how our brains are different is part of understanding how we can increase our performance as leaders. After all, we cannot effectively lead and collaborate with others if we only expect perfection.

How Can We Increase Collaboration if We are Perfectionists?

When we collaborate with others, we expect to share ideas and develop some plan or product. We expect others to work hard, and we may have very high expectations. However, sometimes we set a goal that simply isn’t reachable. 

A perfectionist may expect everyone around them to feel the same urges they do. In reality, they may be pushing people far past the point of reasonableness, which can result in burnout (for both the leader and the employee). 

How can we determine if we are conscientious or if we are perfectionists? Perfectionists are usually unhappy with the results and do not experience a reward for any performance. They are motivated by the fear of failure. 

They may always see these failures as an indicator of their own self-worth. Conscientious people are less focused on flaws and are instead inspired by a desire to succeed. They stop to reward themselves and their teams instead of constantly plunging ahead.5

Ideas to Help Work with Others (Perfectionist or Not!)

It is often more challenging to work with people, whether they are the perfectionist or we are. That ‘perfect’ standard is often unobtainable, but there are some strategies that help improve collaboration. 

  • Clear goals and expectations. Every party involved should have clear goals and expectations. This helps improve collaboration and make sure everyone is on the same page. Realistic timelines can keep a project on track, and everyone should also be clear on their responsibilities and role. 
  • Don’t just focus on the outcome. The process is where the work happens, but perfectionists may be overly focused on the final result, increasing stress and anxiety. We should try to focus on the actual collaboration process instead, with each step building to a successful finale. 
  • Encourage a growth mindset. A growth mindset involves believing that abilities and skills can be developed with dedication and hard work. Promoting a growth mindset encourages leaders and team members to feel more comfortable taking risks and learning from their mistakes.
  • Positive feedback is essential. Perfectionists do not typically give themselves any praise, so celebrating the good things along the way are important to keep up morale. Since we want to focus on the collaboration process, it is important to provide positive feedback as work on the project continues.
  • Be patient. Perfectionists (as a leader or otherwise) need to feel comfortable with the collaborative process. Patience is important and helps create a supportive atmosphere that encourages open communication.
  • Open communication is key. Encourage people to share their thoughts and ideas without any risk of ridicule or scorn. Making people understand that imperfect ideas are also necessary and can provide a springboard for increased creativity and innovation is crucial. 
  • Be brave. Being brave and leading by example sets the stage for improved collaboration with all the brains involved in a project or task. It takes a lot of courage to admit to someone that we tend to be a perfectionist. It also takes courage to want to work with someone we know who shows perfectionist traits. 

High Standards Do Not Always Equal Perfectionism

An Olympic-caliber athlete likely has very high standards for themselves. They may train their body and mind regularly to perform at the pinnacle of their event. Does this make them a perfectionist?

According to Drs Hewitt and Flett, the answer is not automatically yes. With over 20 years of research experience, Hewitt and Flett believe there is a clear difference between wanting to excel and wanting to be perfect.6 We can use these same lessons as leaders. We don’t have to be perfect to be successful, and perfectionists are not always successful anyway. 

Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?

Brené Brown

Sometimes It’s Time to Move On

People who cannot accept a situation and move on are on the perfectionist side of the spectrum. When we realise there is no feasible solution, we should accept this and adjust instead of wasting more resources and brainpower. We should figure out what we can learn from the situation, which makes it a valuable lesson, and then try something new or redirect our attention. 

We should not keep doing things simply because that’s how they have always been done, especially if these methods are outdated or don’t make sense with the vision of the organisation. Having the courage to say ‘Stop!’ is important. We need to trust our teams to tell us when this happens, and we must be willing to make the necessary changes. 

There are some aspects of life we cannot control. There are some things at work that we also cannot control. Perfectionist leaders have difficulty accepting this loss, and the adverse effects can often be felt from the top down. 

Brain-based leadership means using neuroscience to better understand how we interact and work with others. Overcoming perfectionism is possible but may require effort and diligence. Effective leadership means having the courage to overcome our weaknesses while exploring our strengths. 

Meaningful collaboration doesn’t happen when leaders expect everyone to achieve wildly unrealistic goals. Instead, we need courageous leaders who can adapt to changing norms and conditions and are ready to thrive in the Imagination Age.

Do you have difficulty accepting and letting things go? i4 Neuroleader Assessment
Citations: 
  1. Wu D, Wang K, Wei D, et al. Perfectionism mediated the relationship between brain structure variation and negative emotion in a nonclinical sample. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 2017; 17: 211–223.
  2. Kim S, Lee D. Prefrontal cortex and impulsive decision making. Biol Psychiatry 2011; 69: 1140–1146.
  3. Aupperle RL, Paulus MP. Neural systems underlying approach and avoidance in anxiety disorders. Dialogues Clin Neurosci 2010; 12: 517–531.
  4. Bromberg-Martin ES, Matsumoto M, Hikosaka O. Dopamine in motivational control: rewarding, aversive, and alerting. Neuron 2010; 68: 815–834.
  5. Paul L Hewitt GLF. When does conscientiousness become perfectionism? Current Psychiatry; 6.
  6. Benson E. The Many Faces of Perfectionism. American Psychological Association 2003; 34: 18.
Originally posted on: 2 March 2023
Last updated on: 12 April 2024

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Silvia Damiano

Silvia Damiano

Founder & CEO
About my Brain Institute

Scientist, educator, author, speaker, coach, award-winning leadership specialist, filmmaker and creator of the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology.

Silvia's scientific background and curiosity about the human brain led her to a decade long journey of research into optimal brain functioning and the application of neuroscience in leadership and daily life. Her past and current roles have uniquely prepared her for the current undertaking, that of leadership activist & change agent.

Silvia Damiano founded The About my Brain Institute in 2009, with the purpose of democratising leadership & neuroscience. She has a passionately held belief, that leaders in our 21st century global economy and their organisations must radically change long-held ideas of what constitutes effective leadership

In her ground-breaking books ‘Leadership is Upside Down’, ‘Brain-Friendly Leadership’ and the 2018 documentary ‘Make Me A Leader’, Silvia provides both compelling evidence and explores the importance of leadership in our personal and professional lives and what it takes to develop the human behind the leader.

Silvia has worked in different countries, across many industries, helping teams and organisations improve business performance. Silvia’s clients have described her as a passionate, dynamic, a highly experienced speaker and master facilitator on the topics of Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Change, Neuroleadership & Engagement.

Silvia is passionate about leaving a legacy of well-rounded leaders who can act and decide in a way that better serves humanity. Her clients include Microsoft, Australian Stock Exchange, NSW Government, VISA, Fuji Xerox and Manpower amongst many other global companies.

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