Recruiters have a lot to juggle: sourcing talent, finding qualified candidates, building resume databases, and ensuring candidates walk away with a positive impression regardless of outcome. With so many people and processes to consider, a hiring manager may be struggling with the silent killer of perfectionism. If companies are worried over quality candidate sourcing, they should take great care of keeping perfectionism out of their workplace.

Perfectionism sounds like some sort of “second-class struggle”, but it does have grave consequences on both private and work life. Brené Brown, PhD, a professor specializing in the research of shame and vulnerability explains the dangers of ordering oneself and their environment to be perfect. Dr. Brown highlights that perfectionism is a form of armor, a way people protect themselves from getting hurt. Sharing her 13 years of research with Oprah, Dr. Brown further elaborated on the implications of perfectionism. She also pointed to the areas where it’s likely to rear its head:  in the areas we feel vulnerable to shame.

 If you feel particularly worried about doing well at work in general, all the time, you may want to reexamine whether you’re feeling vulnerable about your job. Maybe you're stressed about suboptimal sourcing strategies or not creating a bigger funnel for passive candidates. You may be working at a startup that needs rapid sourcing and recruiting ---and there's not enough hours in the day for sourcing. True, there are times when work gets stressed, but in general, striving for excellence and perfectionism is different.

Dr. Brown explains those who struggle with the perfectionism are often truly to avoid “criticism, blame, and ridicule”.  Are you stressed about every aspect of your job, delivering new candidate profiles, brainstorming the upcoming candidate sourcing strategy, or working a particular colleague? It may be worth to examine whether you’re fearing blame or ridicule.

“Perfectionism” is a characteristic within people that has them set unrealistic standards for themselves; they always tend to find the flaw in their work.

I try to meet high goals. Am I a perfectionist?” Dr. Brown would say, not necessarily. There is a type of perfectionism that is not as deadly as the first. Perfectionism, in small doses, and with clear boundaries and awareness can be helpful. Working your hardest to find the best candidates? Cool. Staying over on weekends to one-handedly create a database for sourcing candidates? So yeah, you may want to check your perfectionist levels. There are actually degrees of "perfectionism".

Adaptive perfectionism” is the technical term that refers to the type of perfectionism that allows people to strive internally to reach for high goals, but gives them the permission to make mistakes and be unsettled when not-so-good feedback returns. People with this kind of perfectionism understand how to receive feedback or know when to submit a project, as it is.  What recruiters and others in the workforce must be aware of becoming is a “maladaptive perfectionist”.

A person with maladaptive perfectionist characteristics possess a singular, driving emotion in their work: fear of failure. They remain anxious, avoidant, or nitpick their work. These are the individuals who may stay up late reviewing reports over and over again. Or they may be the manager that seems to never be satisfied with job boards outcome or fretting over number of passive candidates versus active candidates. Recruiting passive candidates or revving up the candidate sourcing cycle could be ways they mask this trait.

candidate sourcing

Unsurprisingly, this leads to severe stress—and potentially, a toxic work culture. In 2019, 94% of American workers report experiencing stress at their workplace. Unfortunately, this means a stressful working environment is the rule, not the exception. How much of this is due to fear of failure? How much of this stress is due to fear of criticism of a harsh boss or colleagues? Research conducted by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill tested the responses in college students about perfectionism. 

They tested generational changes in college student’ responses using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS)from 1989 to 2016. The scale used was developed by leading psychologists studying the field of perfectionism, Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett.

The MPS measures

-self-oriented perfectionism (excessively high personal expectations)
-socially prescribed perfectionism (excessively high social expectations)
-and other-oriented perfectionism (excessively high expectations of others)

The results were startling. 

“Between 1989 and 2016, college students’ levels of self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented perfectionism all increased by statistically significant amounts. Recent generations of young people are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others.”

Socially prescribed perfectionism doubled—it increased at twice the rate than the other two categories. What’s significant about this particular finding is how socially-prescribed perfectionism affects mental health.

It’s the form of perfectionism highly correlated with a wide array of mental health challenges: anxiety, social phobia, depression, and suicidal thoughts. These are exactly the critical issues human resources themselves try to guard their employees against. One solid recruiting strategy could be ensuring socially-prescribed perfectionism does not take root in the hiring team.

candidate sourcing

Currently hiring managers are sourcing and recruiting digital natives--arguably the most perfectionist-oriented candidates. Millennials make up 50% of the workforce. By this year, Gen Z will comprise 35%. Young people have set excessive standards for themselves. Perfectionism is an impossible goal. These digital natives may be reduced to giving themselves harsh punishments for not meeting the irrational expectations. The myth of perfection is being internalised by more and more young people. This is one factor to be aware of when practicing candidate sourcing, particularly with Millennials and/or Gen Zers. It’s also a value that should be addressed as they move into the workplace. As recruiters and hiring managers, you can be the first to address this fear through policies that welcome failure and leaders who want to engage in fighting this workplace sickness. 

Because perfectionism brings with it catastrophic affects, as much as any illness would. 

The high correlation between perfectionism and burnout is staggering. 


Your candidate sourcing strategy may mean to be on the lookout for future team members that focus on providing excellence, not perfection. This kind of attitude is a welcome asset on any project and to any team, but hiring a perfectionist is placing serious limitations on productivity. For example, an individual may be in the habit of redoing tasks and thereby missing critical deadlines, creating incredible tension within a team and/or with a client. 

Having a perfectionist distinctly affects the morale of those under them and those working with them. In fact, this could be quite the most expensive habit to tolerate as a company. First, it disarms the team to operate at the highest level, meeting deadlines and checking off tasks. A hiring manager may fail at efficient talent sourcing or open roles that technically could have been filled with qualified candidates. Second, perfectionist bosses or colleagues are exhausting and stressful; resigning could be the only way for some employees to cope. 

Having a perfectionist on the talent acquisition team can be especially detrimental, not only to the sourcing team themselves, but to the entire company.

Recruiters and the hiring team work towards efficient candidate sourcing, identifying the best candidates, creating sourcing strategies, building resume databases for passive recruiting, and developing internal talent. Essentially, they're creating the life-blood of a company. If a difficult, perfectionist manager is a stressor, they may miss essential deadlines or have much-needed colleagues quit. The talent management team especially cannot afford a maladaptive perfectionist.

If you're trying to determine whether you, a colleague, or in sourcing candidates he overlying effects of perfectionism in a professional setting include:

-Stunted productivity
-Reluctancy in taking risks
-Smothers innovation

In the back of a perfectionist’s mind, as they roll up their sleeves, the belief, “My perfectionism produces better results” is fundamentally wrong. In a 2010 study that examined the academic productivity and levels of perfectionism of psychology professors: the researchers observed those with high levels of perfectionism did produce more publications. They did have more papers under their professional belt. However, did these perfectionists create superior academic papers? Actually, their papers tended to be less effectual. The end-results of this study speak to the measurable difference between striving for excellence and perfection.

How can a manager or a person having perfectionistic tendencies harness the motivation for excellence, but decrease its harsher consequences? Is it possible?

Yes, it’s possible, though it will take the conscious decision to make new thought patterns and behaviours. If you are a manager overseeing a perfectionist employee, sit down with your employee and explain how delegating tasks will make their work more productive and foster a better team environment. Name specific tasks that could be delegated, naming team members who could potentially take over those tasks. If your employee has a tendency to micromanage, be sure to emphasize how giving a task to that other team member gives them a chance to grow professional as they refine a skill.

If you struggle with the perfectionism, Andy Hill, PhD, an associate professor of health and life sciences at York St. John University offers a simple and effective method to give perspective. “Write down what an ideal performance, a good performance and an acceptable performance would look like. Then pick up what you’re up against in terms of time and resources and pick the goal that’s most realistic

A hiring manager and talent acquisition teams already engage their full efforts in talent management. Perfectionism can be a danger to creating a vibrant and health talent pipeline and culture. In each stage of the talent cycle, from candidate sourcing, the job interview, to in-house team development, perfectionism can rear its ugly head, particularly with young workers. 

Lead with “done is better than perfect”. Be sure to pay attention to where perfectionism may show up, especially when deadlines loom. Some perfectionist colleagues may keep redoing tasks; there may be others who actually postpone deadlines as some perfectionists often procrastinate because they can’t fail on things they haven’t started yet. Support employees by reminding them to believe in progress, not perfection. 

Companies like BMW and Lufthansa, leverage Retorio's AI to support their own talent management teams. Our video-based AI was featured in TechCrunch and Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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Elizabeth T.

Written by Elizabeth T.

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