6 Strategies for Dealing with Perfectionists on your Team

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 uncompromisingif 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 peoplethere'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 assistanceeven 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.

Jayne Thompson

Jayne is a freelance copywriter, business writer and the blog editor here at Truity. One part word nerd, two parts skeptic, she helps clients discover the amazing power of words on a page. She lives with her ENTX husband and children in Yorkshire, UK, where she drinks a lot of tea and loves winding people up. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.


Makarand Kulkarni (not verified) says...

Excellent article. So relevant, insightful, applicable and yet simple. Congratulations great work. Keep writing and keep sharing 

Lilu (not verified) says...

The tone of this article reads condescending to me, an INFJ.  I strive to do things right the first time.  I care about following rules and doing my best in my work.

This article mostly addresses those who are functioning in unhealthy ways, and does not truly address the desire of certain personality types to perform to their best standard.

People fall into unhealthy perfectionism because their natural personality traits are not accepted, valued and/or guided into proper expression.  They are told they are being too...., or not ... enough.  We learn early on that if we can perform better, then the person criticizing us has no legitimate platform to find fault with us.

Not being accepted for something that is a natural strength of your personality, is a stain on a society that values sameness and performance.

Perfectionism is formed in the heart of a child without proper nurture.  People don't choose perfectionism. It is a coping mechanism.  The pain that led them to performance is real. The fear of that pain is also real.

You are right, perfectionists need to learn that they won't lose value or acceptance for doing less than their best, because they are sure that they will.

Shannon Mitchell (not verified) says...

I am a perfectionist.  I enjoy it and will admit being one. 

I feel enbarrassment to the point of shame if my to me "imperfect" work receives positive comments.  Instead, I can appreciate my boss recognizing I wanted to do more but didn't.  Rather than praise I prefer being told something like, "I realize you wanted to do an even finer more complete job, but thank you for being on time.  We don't need it any more perfect than this. We cant afford any more time."  Being honest about the cost of perfectionism helps me adjust down to a more mutually acceptable standard.  Besides, I like all these cards out on the table openly.

I do not mind even being kidded as being the one who has drive to keep tweaking a project. I can take teasing more than what I perceive as false praise.  Inaccurate compliments grate on me something terrible.  They keep running through my mind taking on worse embarrassment the longer I think of them. 

The sting lasts because I feel so personally dishonest inside, like I have deceived my boss. I tend to respect my superiors at work thus their comments carry weight.  I feel as if I am complicit at deluding them somehow if they praise an unfinished job. 

Overall this article was interesting and insightful. I only wanted to add my opinion for what it's worth. . .

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