When Apple founder Steve Jobs set up the company’s first factory in 1984, he would check thoroughly for any dust on the equipment or the floor, later remarking that “if we didn’t have the discipline to keep that place spotless, then we weren’t going to have the discipline to keep all these machines running.”
Jobs is thought to have had obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and its impact on his life will be the focus of an upcoming biopic. Characterised by a preoccupation with perfectionism, orderliness, and mental and interpersonal control, it caused problems in his personal life but arguably fuelled his quest for innovation, and brought him success.
In the right context, obsessiveness can ensure improved efficiency, enthusiasm and scrupulous attention to detail. So how can it be harnessed to help you succeed?
A SOURCE OF CONFUSION
In 2014, billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn said in an interview that an obsession is the “common denominator for successful people”. But which kinds of obsession are healthy and fruitful?
A paper by the Rouen Business School found that “workaholism”, defined as someone’s feelings of compulsion towards work, and their enjoyment of it, is actually beneficial. In an article for Career Development International, the paper’s author Yehuda Baruch said that, while workaholism has traditionally been portrayed as a problem – an addiction linked to high stress levels at work and home which disrupts the work-life balance – empirical research shows that workaholics are more likely to demonstrate vigour and dedication than exhaustion and cynicism.
Enjoyment may be the key differentiator between those who are workaholics and those who are simply overworked. A study of Dutch workers by Wilmar Schaufeli at Utrecht University found that “high engagement may buffer the adverse consequences of workaholism”. In other words, your obsession may be an advantage if you actually enjoy your work.
Indeed, Schaufeli found that “engaged workaholics” – those who work themselves hard because of an enthusiasm – were less likely to burn out and experience stress than workaholics who feel pressure for other reasons, like pay, desire for prestige, or guilt.
Moreover, there may be health benefits to compulsion. Baruch draws a comparison with a chocolate addiction, arguing that an obsession with working provides increased energy levels and a sense of well-being reinforced by achievements.
LESSONS FOR THE REST OF US
So if you’re not naturally obsessed with working, how can you emulate those who are? Aim to beat your own performance record, rather than anyone else’s. Perfectionism is widely considered one of the most destructive forms of obsession in the workplace. A paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Review found that, while perfectionists who are motivated by an anxiety about disappointing others perform worse as a result of their obsession, those fixated on breaking their own records – or “self-orientated” perfectionists – are driven in a healthy way.
Improving a business’s habits and culture on a micro-level can also reduce business inefficiencies. Cisco has incorporated the aggregation of marginal gains into its feedback policy. When its executives deliver presentations to employees, or address customers in any setting, a performance rating is taken immediately, with the intention of improving communications on a micro-level across the entire company.