Most people consider having high standards a good thing. Constantly striving for excellence is a sign that you're committed to your job and support others by setting the bar high for their performance as well. You can easily spot a perfectionist, because he's the one who takes extreme care in finishing work, always wants to do more, and is insistent on driving up quality standards.
If that sounds positive, then here's the reality check: perfection is an illusion. It exists, of course, but not typically in a way that you can do something with it when the usual time and resource constraints get in the way. What drives perfectionism is largely a fear of failure, which means that perfectionists are perpetually frustrated, distrustful of others (they struggle to delegate tasks), rigid, inflexible and uncompromising—if they cannot do something perfectly, they would rather not do it at all. If everyone in your business thought like that, there wouldn't be much business going on. Suddenly, perfectionism is not looking so good.
If you have a perfectionist on your team, then you have a challenge on your hands. To get the best out of this employee, you have to harness all the upsides of perfectionism while eliminating the toxic elements. Here are six strategies to help you do just that.
#1: Give the right job
This one is obvious, but perfectionists are not a good fit for every job. It's not wise to put them in charge of big, complicated projects with lots of moving parts, at least not until they have learned to control their perfectionist tendencies a little better. Don't ask them to manage dozens of people—there's a risk they'll end up micromanaging and everyone will get frustrated.
Instead, find jobs where their attention to detail will be appreciated. Every organization has narrow-bandwidth tasks that demand you to triple-check everything. Is your perfectionist working in her sweet spot?
#2: Make compromises with them
Give a perfectionist ambitious objectives or stretch goals, and he'll bust a gut to achieve them, potentially triggering burnout in the process. Some personalities are more exposed than others here, notably Sensor Judgers, your work-before-play, black-and-white thinkers.
Perfectionism and work addiction go hand in hand, so make sure the work environment is not as demanding on the perfectionist as he is on himself. This does not mean that you lower your expectations of the perfectionist, just that you become more flexible. For example, ask the perfectionist to test how far the bar can be lowered without anyone noticing a drop in standards (spoiler: it will be much further than the perfectionist thinks).
The world will not end when the perfectionist turns in a silver-star piece of work. Once he realizes that, then you can help him create more reasonable expectations for himself.
#3: Determine in advance what the end result should look like
Perfectionism can lead to tasks getting bigger and bigger as the perfectionist works on them. What starts out as a small case study comes back as a 50-page report. And there are now 20 other jobs piled up in the perfectionist's inbox because she spent so long on this project.
As manager, the obvious solution here is to dictate how the final result should look when the task is finished. Tell her, "I want one page of bullet points only, to be ready by the end of the day." You have to be very close to this person while she is learning to let go of her perfectionist tendencies. This is often neglected by managers, because it requires more hand-holding than you may be used to and can be conflictual. But the more of these baby steps you take, the more your perfectionist will instinctively work to the required standard.
#4: Force Them to Subcontract
Left to his own devices, a perfectionist would always deliver high-quality work without support or assistance—even if it means killing himself during the execution. That's why perfectionists are the perfect candidates for burnout. Since they may have difficulty letting go of certain projects, it's crucial that you pair them up with a less detail-oriented collaborator and force them to delegate projects.
Another option is to put the perfectionist on a team with clear roles and accountability, where he has to engage with colleagues' ideas and strategies and accept "good enough" results.
The aim here is to encourage the perfectionist to assess his own high sense of responsibility. Most perfectionists tend to pick up and solve everything, not only for themselves, but for others too. Having him work on a team means he has to ask himself two things:
Is this my responsibility? If not, then he must step away and leave the problem with the accountable team member, where it belongs.
Do I give others enough space? There's going to be lot of friction if the perfectionist undermines the efforts of others or refuses to give them a fair chance. Suddenly conflicting interests begin to play: personal perfectionism versus social perfection and being liked at work. The perfectionist is going to have to make some comprises if she wants to earn the respect of the team. It is not all-or-nothing, but win-win.
#5: Be an example of someone who is not perfect
Perfectionists often can not imagine that people are 100 percent satisfied with an 80 percent result, as the Pareto principle suggests they are. Therefore, you have to make it very clear that nobody expects perfection and the company does not have the time and resources for that. In fact, there are consequences of missing a deadline or running over budget: it's embarrassing, and you may lose clients as a result.
Unfortunately, perfection is a pattern that is very difficult for the perfectionist to break intellectually.
As a manager, you must support your words by taking an example role, that is, doing things that are not perfect. Do you complete your work within working hours, go home at an acceptable hour and leaving your laptop in the office at the weekend? Are you making it clear to the entire team that the Excel document does not have to look perfect and that you only care about the numbers? Or are you reinforcing a culture of perfectionism by being concerned with details that really do not matter?
#6: Give praise for things that are not perfect
If there's one thing perfectionists need, it is appreciation for the work done. You have to say clearly: "This is great work, I am really happy with it." Only then will the employee stop working on the task. Anything less than glowing feedback will be evaluated as a criticism by the perfectionist, and she'll keep plugging away to improve the quality of the output.
Giving praise is a complicated job, since you'll have to give regular praise and reassurance even when things do not go well, and the result is not quite as everyone expected. Ultimately, you have to praise a perfectionist for things that are not perfect. And do so in homeopathic doses, as he learns to shift his standards.