October 20, 2011

Do you have a perfectionist on your team? The good news is that your direct report has high standards and a fine attention for detail. The bad news is that he fixates on every facet of a project and can't set priorities. Can you harness these positive qualities without indulging the bad? Can you help him become less of a stickler? Yes and yes. Managing a perfectionist can be challenging but it's not impossible. And when done well, you both will benefit.

Many people claim to be perfectionists because they think it makes them look good. But true perfectionism is a flaw more than an asset. "Everybody is a perfectionist to some degree. It's when it becomes an obsession that it's a problem," says Robert Steven Kaplan, a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and author of What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential. In many cases, this compulsive behavior can be the thorn in the side of a great performer. "I think they're fabulous people and I think they're out of control," says, Thomas J. DeLong, the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and the author of Flying Without a Net. Overseeing a purist requires patience and a unique approach to supervision. Below are several tactics to get the most from your fastidious team member. 

Appreciate the positives while recognizing the negatives
Working with perfectionists can be frustrating. They tend to be impatient with or hypercritical of others and they're not good at delegating. "On some level, they actually believe no one can do it better," says DeLong. And they struggle to appropriately allocate their time. "They will focus on the last 2% excessively when 94% is good enough," he says. Recognize that while irritating, their behavior is not all bad. There are many upsides as well. "You can't be a perfectionist without having your head, heart and soul in the game. They're committed to their work and the institution," says DeLong. In fact, 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. Don't give them projects that they will struggle to complete or roles that will cause them to spin out. Accept that they may not be good managers as they are likely to demand too much of their people (see "hypercritical" and "bad at delegating" above). They are also unlikely to thrive in charge of a big complicated business. Instead, find jobs where their fastidiousness will be appreciated. "Put them in a place in the organization with narrower bandwidth," says Kaplan. 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. You have to help your direct reports recognize when their exacting standards result in negative outcomes. "When someone becomes more self-aware, you can deactivate them so they take a different perspective," says DeLong. Many perfectionists don't realize what they're doing; others do but aren't motivated to change. "They know it's not good for them, but it feels good in the short-term," says DeLong. Explain what you're seeing — "I notice that you like to get everything right" — and then help them see the downsides. "No one loves to do things just adequately," says Kaplan. But most work requires compromise and tradeoffs. Explain that by setting priorities and identifying what matters most, they can save themselves time and effort. He also suggests explaining how perfectionist tendencies often prevent people from getting uniformly positive reviews or rising into management. "As you get more senior there is no such thing as perfect," he explains. Show your direct reports that letting go of perfect is a step toward achieving their big-picture goals.

Coach, if possible
Not every perfectionist is coachable but it pays to try. First ask: "Are they self-aware enough to know they have this quality and motivated to learn?" says Kaplan. Of course, like everyone else, your perfectionist won't change overnight. But don't let her behavior exasperate you. Kaplan says you need to remember that everyone has weaknesses and to exercise patience. "Sometimes showing you care about someone is enough to motivate them," he says. He also suggests you find mentors who are reformed perfectionists themselves who can serve as role models. If someone they look up to can say, "I was like you," they are more likely to benefit from their advice.

Be careful with feedback
Every employee needs feedback. But perfectionists may have a harder time than others hearing criticism of their work. Don't couch your input in positives. Since critique is difficult for them, perfectionists are likely to hear only the negatives. Instead, share your apprehensions first. 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. "Have the hope and confidence that they will take it well," says DeLong.

Principles to Remember

  • Recognize that there are both positives and negatives to having a stickler on your team
  • Explain the behavior you're noticing to try to increase their self-awareness
  • Help perfectionists see that their behavior may limit their career
  • Put a perfectionist in a role that is overly complex or requires managing people
  • Insist that perfectionists change — they won't be able to unless they want to
  • Shy away from giving feedback — instead ask for the perfectionist's advice on how to deliver it

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