Managing Perfectionism in the Workplace – HBR

Managing Perfectionism in the Workplace

“Everybody is a perfectionist to some degree. It’s when it becomes an obsession that it’s a problem,” says Robert Kaplan. Managing a perfectionist can be challenging  but it’s not impossible.

Appreciate the positives while recognizing the negatives
Working with perfectionists can be frustrating. They tend to be impatient with or hypercritical of others, and poor delegators. Delong argues that “On some level, they actually believe no one can do it better” Perfectionists struggle to appropriately allocate their time and will focus on the last 2% excessively when 94% is good enough. However, perfectionists are committed to their work and because of their insistence on excellence, they often raise the standards of those around them.

Give the right job
Perfectionists are not a good fit for every job, e.g.. projects that they will struggle to complete. Accept that they may not be good managers  (see “hypercritical” and “bad at delegating” above). They are also unlikely to thrive in charge of a big complicated business.  Find jobs where their fastidiousness will be appreciated. Every organization has jobs that require intense attention to detail and encompass a relatively limited scope.

Increase self-awareness
Even in the right position, perfectionists can cause trouble — slowing progress or demoralizing colleagues. Managers must help their direct reports recognize when this result in negative outcomes. Explain that most work requires compromise and tradeoffs. Explain that by setting priorities, time and effort will be saved. Kaplan suggests explaining how perfectionist tendencies often prevent people from getting uniformly positive reviews or rising into management.  

Coach, if possible
Not every perfectionist is coachable but it pays to try – everyone has weaknesses so it is important  to exercise patience.

Be careful with feedback
Perfectionists may have a harder time than others hearing criticism and are likely to hear only the negatives. However, share your apprehensions. DeLong suggests you ask for their advice: “I’m not sure how to talk to you about how you can improve your performance. What guidance would you give me about how to give you feedback?” With this in mind, you can deliver the input in a way that won’t make them defensive or demotivate them.

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