Trouble Finding the Right Employee? Is Perfectionism Getting in the Way?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Article originally appeared here on

When I went house shopping a few years ago I experienced a recurring process in my head. Enroute to each open house I would already begin evaluating the neighborhood. As soon as I walked into the front door I would begin to see things I liked and didn’t like. As I left each house I would have a list in my head of the advantages and disadvantages of each property. Soon I began constructing the “perfect” house in my head: “I want the layout of the house from the second one, the backyard of the fourth one, the price of the first one…” and so on. As I pulled the best from each house and constructed my ideal house in my imagination, I began to think this perfect house existed. In reality, there were always going to be some things I didn’t like about a house. But, the possibility of that perfect house next on the list encouraged me to continue shopping.

Sound familiar? Looking for the ideal employee can be very similar. “Can we get Bob’s enthusiasm, with Kate’s skill level, and John’s starting salary?” The answer is no. It is seductive to imagine the perfect solution to a problem (i.e., the perfect job candidate): one in which you are able to eliminate all possible risks and disadvantages. And, in fact, giving into this impulse typically results in procrastination and an inability to make a final choice.

While I’m not suggesting you rush the process, there are times when action is far more effective than inaction. Beware of the unhealthy perfectionistic trap of believing that thinking about a problem and doing something about it are one and the same. My rule of thumb: Effective problem solving involves reflection and consideration, followed up with action.

How to help you move forward on picking that final candidate:

  1. Perfectionism encourages you to look for the candidate with only positives and no drawbacks. Since you won’t be able to find that candidate, instead prioritize attributes you think are the most important. For example, what are your top five musts in a candidate? What are five qualities or skills you would prefer to see, but could live without? Then score each candidate on these dimensions.
  2. Perfectionism can sometimes encourage a “if you want it done right do it yourself” mentality. However, only one set of eyes on a candidate might miss something important. Assemble a team to help you with the interview process. Include those who will be working closely with the new employee as well as individuals who can accurately assess their skill level. If you are in charge of the final hiring don’t abdicate your role as final decision maker, but be open to perspectives from your interviewing team.
  3. If you have hired candidates for similar positions in the past, have you gone back and looked at your good hires and not so good? There may be information to be had in learning from your own mistakes. Unhealthy perfectionism has us criticizing ourselves for mistakes that we make and can inhibit this very important process. However, if we understand the important information to be had in our previous mistakes, then we can learn from them and implement this new knowledge the next time around.
  4. Be on the look out for unhealthy perfectionistic applicants. Qualities in particular to look out for? Excessive self-promotion, track record of not wanting to take risks and typically taking a conservative route, and an unwillingness to discuss or talk about mistakes made. While every applicant is going to try to put their best foot forward, an unhealthy perfectionist will appear a little too slick, somewhat brittle, and too eager to please. Healthy perfectionists, in contrast, will appear confident, collaborative and have a sense of humor about or something they learned from mistakes they have made. As a result, they will not avoid talking about mistakes.

A new employee is a big investment. In many cases there is a lot riding on picking the right person. However, don’t let unhealthy perfectionistic habits leave you paralyzed trying to find the ideal candidate.