Managing Perfectionists

Harnessing the Commitment to Excellence

Learn how to get the best from perfectionists on your team.

© iStockphoto/BartCo

Cassandra is exceptionally bright and talented. She's excellent with detail-oriented work, and she has incredibly high standards.

However, she spends too much of her time focusing on details that are not relevant to a project's goal, she struggles to delegate even minor tasks, and she rewrites her work so often that she misses deadlines.

The problem is that she's too much of a perfectionist.

If you have a perfectionist on your team, then this story might sound familiar. Perfectionists often produce excellent work, but their excessive attention to detail and frequent reworking of projects can cause a lot of problems within a team.

So, what can you do to harness the potential of perfectionists, while minimizing the downsides of their perfectionism? In this article, we'll look at several strategies that you can use.

What is Perfectionism?

The term "Perfectionism"   is attributed to people who pursue flawless work and set unrealistically high standards and goals for themselves. Perfectionists tend to be very critical of the work that they do – even when it's done well, they always manage to find a fault.

Of course, a small amount of perfectionism, or "adaptive perfectionism," is a good thing. Adaptive perfectionists have high standards, work with optimism and pleasure, and consistently desire to improve their knowledge and skills. Importantly, they know when to stop work and "ship" the finished product.

The negative form of this condition is called "maladaptive perfectionism." Maladaptive perfectionists often have a fear of failure  . They're never completely satisfied with the work that they do, they're often unhappy or anxious, and they're obsessed with producing perfect work, even when it takes too long to deliver.

It's often easy to identify team members who are maladaptive perfectionists. If a team member's obsession with being "perfect" starts to affect their or their team's performance negatively, then it's likely that their perfectionism is maladaptive.

The Problems with Maladaptive Perfectionism

One of the most damaging effects of maladaptive perfectionism is its impact on health and well-being. Numerous studies have linked it to procrastination, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety, severe stress, low self-esteem, and even suicide.

Maladaptive perfectionism can also negatively affect the morale and effectiveness of a team. Maladaptive perfectionists often find it difficult to meet deadlines, delegate work, and accept constructive criticism. They'll often micromanage teammates when they do succeed in delegating a task, and they can be less productive than others, simply because they spend so much time checking and rechecking their work.

While all these effects are bad, it's important to realize that maladaptive perfectionists mean well. They're committed to their work, as well as to the organization's success. If they didn't care about what they were doing, or who they were doing it for, they wouldn't waste their time on it!

Also, keep in mind that, sometimes, a job or task needs to be perfect: for instance, when you're sending work out to clients, rolling out a new product, or doing jobs where people's health and safety – or large amounts of money – are at stake. Perfectionists can be assets in these situations, so it's important to find a good balance.

Warning:

Maladaptive perfectionism can cause depression, anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem. You should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if you have any related concerns over your health, or if you are experiencing significant or persistent unhappiness.

Help Them Develop Self-Awareness

Maladaptive perfectionists often don't realize how their behavior affects others. This includes underestimating the importance of the deadlines that they miss, as well as not realizing how much they're upsetting their colleagues. This is why it's important to help your perfectionists develop their self-awareness.

Start by having an honest conversation with them, to find out if they're aware of their maladaptive perfectionist tendencies. Next, communicate how these behaviors are not only limiting their performance, but that of other people as well. Be specific about what you've noticed.

Be sensitive when you address this issue. Remember, your perfectionist team members care a great deal about the quality of their work. Make sure that you express your gratitude for all that they've done. Point out times when their perfectionism was an asset (for instance, they might have spotted an important detail or a mistake that you missed.) But you also need to be clear about how their behavior is hurting others and limiting their potential.

You can help maladaptive perfectionists develop self-awareness   by putting them into new situations. Often, a new experience or challenge forces people to be more self-aware; they might also learn something new about themselves. Keeping a daily journal will also help perfectionist team members develop self-awareness.

When you notice that your perfectionist team members are too focused on an unimportant detail or process, commend their focus and determination, but stress that it's time to move on. If they're stuck on doing something in a specific way, encourage them to come up with an alternative solution. Remind them of the most important goals of the task or project.

Help Them Understand the Cost Implications

Maladaptive perfectionists often struggle to sign off on a project, regardless of whether they miss a deadline or run over budget. Missed deadlines can cause the team embarrassment, can result in a loss of reputation, and can delay important projects or undermine their business case.

If you notice that your maladaptive perfectionist team member is missing deadlines, or is running over budget, help him understand the cost implications of his actions. Encourage your perfectionist team member to use Action Plans   so that he can organize his workload, and help him to schedule his time effectively  , so that he can avoid missing deadlines.

Help Them Delegate

Maladaptive perfectionists often find it difficult to delegate tasks, even when they're snowed under with work.

Start by explaining how successful delegation   will help them work more productively, and help the team move forward as a whole. Suggest several tasks that they might be able to delegate, as well as the team member that you think is best suited for each task.

Even when your maladaptive perfectionists succeed in delegating a task, there's a good chance that they'll micromanage. Help them avoid micromanagement   by communicating how important it is that they give other people the chance to learn and grow from the task.

Make Sure That They're in the Right Role

Maladaptive perfectionists can be unsuccessful when they're put in charge of large projects, or when they're in a varied role. This is not because of a lack of skill or ability, but rather because their attention to detail works against them. Tasks that perfectionists can struggle with include those with a lot of different priorities, or tasks that depend on the work or involvement of several other team members.

Instead, make sure that they're in a role that plays to their strengths. This is any role that has a limited scope, and is particularly detail-focused. While they might have to change careers within the organization  , transitioning to a role that depends on attention to detail will likely mean that they're happier and far more productive than they are now.

You can help them in their current role by assigning deadlines to every task, and by being firm about what will happen if they miss the deadline. You can also team them up with less detail-oriented colleagues (as long as they have patience!) This kind of partnership will force them to spend less time on unimportant details, and will encourage them to let go of work that isn't triple-checked.

Provide Feedback Carefully

No matter how much positive feedback you start with, your maladaptive perfectionists are likely going to focus only on the negative. To manage this tendency, ask how you can best give them feedback  , and listen to what they have to say. They might be able to give you a useful insight into how they would like these sessions to be conducted.

Help them handle criticism   by stressing that feedback isn't about them personally; the best feedback is intended to help them grow and develop professionally. Encourage them to ask questions if anything you say isn't clear, and paraphrase what you've said before you finish speaking.

Learn From Mistakes

Maladaptive perfectionists often have a fear of failure  . This means that they may not take on new challenges unless they're sure that they can complete them successfully.

Encourage your perfectionists to confront this fear. Let them know that mistakes – and even outright failures (as long as they're minor) – are an important part of learning and growth. If they never take a risk and learn from their mistakes, they'll never reach their full potential, either personally or professionally.

You should also teach them how to think positively  . Positive thinking and visualization of positive outcomes can help them overcome their fear of failure.

Key Points

Maladaptive perfectionism occurs when someone pursues unrealistically high standards in his or her work. Maladaptive perfectionists are often very self-critical, and are rarely satisfied with a finished task. More importantly, they often miss deadlines, they can fail to delegate, and they can upset the people they work with.

Numerous studies have linked perfectionism to procrastination, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety, severe stress, low self-esteem, and even suicide.

If you have perfectionists on your team, harness their potential by helping them develop self-awareness, by making sure that they're in the right role, by providing careful feedback, and by helping them learn from mistakes.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

Add this article to My Learning Plan

Where to go from here:

Join the Mind Tools Club

Click to join Mind Tools
Printer-friendly version
Return to the top of the page

Create a Login to Save Your Learning Plan

This ensures that you don’t lose your plan.


Connect with…

Or create a Mind Tools login. Existing user? Log in here.
Log in with your existing Mind Tools details
Lost Username or Password
You are now logged in…

Lost username or password?

Please enter your username or email address and we'll send you a reminder.

Thank You!

Your log in details have been sent to the email account you registered with. Please check your email to reset your login details.

Create a Mind Tools Login
Your plan has been created.

While you're here, subscribe to our FREE newsletter?

Learn a new career skill every week, and get our Personal Development Plan workbook (worth $19.99) when you subscribe.


Thank You!

Please check your Inbox, and click on the link in the email from us. We can then send you the newsletter.