Managing a Perfectionist

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Having a perfectionist on your team can be an asset. Perfectionists are driven to succeed, work hard to avoid mistakes, and are always striving to improve. Yet it can be a challenge to manage someone who needs everything to be perfect.

In my work with perfectionists, I often ask, “How do you want others to see you?” The common responses—I want to be seen as intelligent, independent, autonomous, and good at what I do—are much the same that anyone might give. The difference is that perfectionists have a harder time rolling with the punches when they have an off day, didn’t spend enough time on a project to get the best result, or make a mistake.

Perfectionists generally have a strong work ethic. They are driven to succeed and so will persist at tasks until they reach the desired outcome. The downside is that they sometimes get caught up in strategies with poor payoffs. In other words, they are working hard at something but spinning their wheels.

Here’s an example. A patient of mine I’ll call Max was getting into more and more trouble at work by turning his reports in late week after week. When I asked what was the primary obstacle in completing them, Max told me that he was worried about how others would evaluate his writing if he turned in a poorly written report. I asked Max how long he had been working at his current company. His response: “Ten years.” When I asked, “And how does your supervisor currently judge your writing skills?” he replied: “He says I’m the best writer in the department, except that my work is always late.”

When Max starts writing, he believes he must know exactly how to start and that ideas should naturally flow from one to the next. If he can’t find the “right way” to start, he can’t move forward at all. When he finally does get started, he ruminates about minor mistakes or things that aren’t “just right.” As a result, he reviews and re-edits reports long after they were due. Max works hard, but often in the wrong ways.

Giving feedback to perfectionists is tricky business. Here are some things to consider:

  • Be clear about your goals and expectations for their work. When left to their own devices, perfectionists may fall into the trap of setting unrealistic expectations for themselves. Letting them know ahead of time what is most important to you can minimize this. Sometimes the emphasis is on the look and feel of a product; sometimes it is on big, attention-grabbing ideas; and sometimes it is about accuracy and precision. Share these expectations explicitly and directly so the perfectionist doesn’t waste time on aspects of the project you don’t think are that important.
  • Encourage a perfectionist to share a work-in-progress with you. Perfectionists are notorious for wanting to show only end products, fearing that a work-in-progress might be seen as the best they can do. Working on iterations of a project together creates a sense of collaboration and reduces the likelihood that a perfectionist will get bogged down in unnecessary details.
  • Perfectionists can be obsessed with not wanting to make mistakes. An unhealthy perfectionist can lose sight of the difference between a minor mistake (finding every spelling error in a 20-page, in house report) versus a major error (misspelling the name of a client in a one page marketing ad). This can be addressed by using the strategies already mentioned (setting clear expectations and collaborating on works in progress). However, some mistakes inevitably occur when beginning a new project or initiative. First run-throughs are inevitably going to have aspects that go well and some things that can be improved upon. In these cases, Unhealthy perfectionists sometimes motivate themselves with excessive self-criticism. Although that strategy may work for them on some level, it is demoralizing.  As a manager, underscoring the value of focusing on weaknesses as an opportunity to improve performance can be critical in keeping them on track. Also, help to soften or deflect a perfectionist’s excessive self-criticism by highlighting what you like about the work he or she is sharing with you and engage in some brainstorming about ways to address what is still missing.
  • Sometimes perfectionists get stuck because they use the same strategies over and over again, even when they stop working or aren’t working in a particular context. In this case, acknowledge the individual’s effort (i.e., how hard he or she is working), but encourage a shift in strategy. More is not always better. If more isn’t paying off, it is time to try different.

With some creative strategies, the challenges of managing a perfectionist will be vastly outweighed by the excellent work he or she wants to do, and can do.

  • Kar

    It seems like you are reading my mind and writing about me in every single blog…