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How to Collaborate with a Perfectionist

It can be draining to work with a perfectionist. While it’s great to work with colleagues who care about the quality of their work, perfectionists take it a step further. Their unrelenting standards can result in unnecessary stress, conflict, and missed deadlines due to a failure to prioritize the big picture over the details. If you try to remind them that “perfect is the enemy of finished,” they may see you as a corner-cutter. Perfectionism is common enough that we’ll all eventually encounter perfectionists in the workplace. So how can you collaborate more productively with them? I have five suggestions, drawn from psychological research into perfectionism and also, anxiety, which is typically what underlies perfectionism. If you’re a perfectionist yourself, you’ll learn tips here for how you can create smoother, stronger working relationships.

Figure Out Which Type of Perfectionist You’re Dealing With

In my experience, there are two types of perfectionists. Avoidant perfectionists have trouble beginning tasks. Deadlines trigger their anxiety about doing things perfectly, and therefore, they drag their feet when starting a new project. On the other hand, Obsessive perfectionists tends to struggle to complete tasks.

Both kinds of perfectionists have trouble prioritizing, and struggle to allocate their time according to what’s most important. Both types also share a habit of expanding the scope of projects. But how you deal with these traits may differ according to the type you’re dealing with.

For people who struggle to get started, you can help by clarifying the task and breaking it down into smaller components. For people who have a hard time finishing, you can focus on prioritizing the elements of the task, and reminding them of prior decisions about its scope.

Since perfectionists often have difficulty setting logical limits on tasks themselves, they may find it very helpful to have someone else do this with them. If you have a respectful and trusting relationship with your colleague, limit setting can improve a relationship rather than create tension. This is particularly true when perfectionism stems from anxiety.

Don’t Internalize Unrealistic Expectations

Consider this scenario: Your perfectionist teammate wants you to update a 15-column tracking spreadsheet every week, when a five-column sheet is all you need, and realistically it’s only going to be used once a month.

Perfectionists tend to equate time with quality, so you’ll need to be particularly thoughtful and diplomatic in explaining why you don’t want to spend that much time on this project. The goal is to explain the opportunity cost of spending excess time filling in ten marginally useful columns of data when you could be serving the company in more productive ways. Be specific and detailed about what those “more productive ways” are, and clear and concrete in explaining why those additional 10 columns won’t be useful.

If this conversation is a difficult one, don’t take it personally. Try to have the mindset that every individual, including you, has their own flaws. Tensions in the workplace are normal. A challenging encounter doesn’t reflect negatively on you or your colleague as people. The consequences of letting yourself get worked up and attaching unnecessary emotional baggage to the situation will be more harmful than productive. 

Find out how your perfectionist colleague prefers to receive feedback. Some will prefer to receive it via email so they have a chance to privately process any initial defensive reactions they have. Self-aware perfectionists typically come-around to a constructive reaction once they’ve had time for their initial strong responses to feedback subside. 

Support Processes that Help the Team Focus on the Big Picture

A defining feature of problematic perfectionism is losing sight of the big picture. While it’s the team leader’s job to develop processes and keep everyone on the team focused on key priorities, there are some things that anyone at any level can do to try and help. During team meetings, you might ask:

  • Is there a simpler way we can achieve our goal?
  • Can we shrink down the amount of time we’re spending?
  • What’s the opportunity cost of spending extra time on this versus another task?

For projects where you’re working with a perfectionist, you can also try creating a basic checklist to help the group stay organized, relieve anxieties surrounding to-dos, and ensure that nothing is being overlooked. Hewing to a clear decision-making process, and documenting what decisions have been made, should also help things move forward.

 

You can encourage the use of heuristics for making decisions that help everyone in the team to quickly and effectively prioritize, like, “If an opportunity is worth less than $X, we’ll automatically pass it up,” or “If a project ends up taking more than X hours to complete, we’ll let our manager know.”

Set Boundaries

A perfectionist’s unrealistic expectations can unintentionally make their teammates feel like their time is not being valued. Let’s take the example of a hard-driving perfectionist who sends you an excessive number of emails — each one with a different question or suggestion — when he’s feeling overwhelmed.

It might be tempting to ignore these emails, or even respond in a curt way, but instead try setting boundaries.

For example, you might choose not to respond to your perfectionist colleague’s evening or weekend emails; or you might decide that you’ll respond to all of their messages once per day, but that’s it. If low priority group emails are being responded to on weekends or late at night, you may need to institute a team policy or guideline about this.

It’s important to recognize that every individual will engage in some self-sabotaging behaviors that, in turn, affect the rest of the team. But by developing boundaries, you will create a culture that encourages personal growth.

Enhance Feelings of Security Through Mutual Influence

Mutual influence is when a teammate allows you to influence their way of thinking and vice versa. It is an important factor that helps any relationship feel more secure. If a perfectionist’s habits irritate you, try compromising. Identify elements of their routine that may be useful to incorporate into your own. If you expect someone else to bend to your way, then you need to show that you’re willing to bend to theirs.

When people feel a sense of relationship security, it’s much easier for them to receive critical feedback. There are several ways to help a perfectionist colleague feel more secure. Show your perfectionist teammates that you think of them highly, and believe in their talent and capabilities. Perfectionists need to know that your general view of them is positive, and that small mistakes, like making a typo, isn’t going to impact your overall confidence in them. When a perfectionist trusts that you will provide feedback without judgment, he or she is able to more easily overcome emotional roadblocks and perform better.

The relationship dynamic will be different between an employee and their boss versus a relationship between two peers. However, for both parties to feel secure, there should be elements of mutual influence, including being open and responsive. Perfectionists have many strengths and can make amazing teammates. Make sure you take advantage of your opportunity to learn from their strengths.

By understanding some of the common habits of perfectionists you can better understand their perspective and struggles. In doing so, you open the door to a healthy relationship in which you can learn from one another and build a more harmonious work environment.


Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.


 
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How to Mentor a Perfectionist

It never ceases to amaze us. Bring up the topic of perfectionism in a room full of corporate CEOs, college presidents, or U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, and you’ll see the same knowing smiles and nods of the head. Moreover, you’ll hear thinly veiled bravado about who among them is the most-perfect perfectionist. Many of them will extol the virtues of seeking perfection, and more than a few will include the pursuit of perfection among their notable strengths. Work environments that foster a zero-defect mentality often exacerbate this veneration of perfection.

The erroneous notion of “good perfectionism” is so widespread that many people struggle to distinguish toxic perfectionism from positive characteristics such as desiring achievement, striving for excellence, and setting high personal performance standards. Research by psychologist Thomas Greenspon indicates that it is a mistake to conflate perfection with a striving for excellence. Perfectionism and the desire to excel are not different locations on the same continuum; they are entirely different constructs. The notion of good perfectionism turns out to be a hopeless oxymoron. If perfectionists are successful at work, it is in spite of their perfectionism, not because of it.

Take those same CEOs, college presidents, and service academy students, and mention that habitual perfectionism is linked to emotional distress, relationship dysfunction, and even the diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and the smiles and bravado will begin to fade. True perfectionists know these hidden costs all too well.

The science on perfectionism as a personality syndrome reveals that perfectionism consists of two discrete elements. First, perfectionists set impossibly high — and clearly unattainable — standards for their own performance. Second, perfectionists are relentless in severely criticizing themselves for failing to achieve those performance hurdles. Ultimately, perfectionists are afraid of failure, worry about the possibility of mistakes, are motivated by a strong sense of duty and obligation (rather than enthusiasm or healthy challenge), and are preoccupied with the possibility that others will disapprove of them. Some might even be described as “working scared.”

Rather than a recipe for success, perfectionism is a “script for self-defeat,” says psychiatrist David Burns. In their quest to avoid mistakes, perfectionists stifle their creativity and avoid taking necessary risks. Self-critical perfectionists are significantly more likely to suffer from symptoms of depression (guilt, anger, sadness, low energy, lack of pleasure), anxiety, hopelessness, and even suicidal thinking.

How does perfectionism take root? Although the science is imperfect, perfectionism appears to blossom from some combination of genetic predisposition, parental behavior or modeling, and sociocultural factors. In addition to modeling emotional distress and anxiety about their own performance, there is evidence that perfectionist parents are more critical, demanding, and less supportive of their children. Perfectionist parents may use affection and approval as a reward for flawless performance. When children are imperfect or make an error, the parent’s obvious disappointment or anxiety will be interpreted as rejection.

Gender also matters. Not only are women more prone to “inherit” a parent’s perfectionism — particularly a mother’s — but they also encounter a host of biases and stereotypes regarding their competence, which can fuel the need to strive for flawless performance. Among these, the prove-it-again bias may be the most pernicious. To be seen as equally competent, women are often required to demonstrate their competence again and again. Men are more likely to be evaluated on potential, while women are evaluated on performance. And performance standards for women tend to be strictly enforced. This means that while men’s blunders may be forgiven or forgotten, a mistake at the hands of a woman is scrutinized and remembered, fueling a woman’s self-imposed and self-critical demands for perfection.

In historically masculine organizations and professions, women are more vulnerable to imposter syndrome. In these contexts, even the most competent and high-achieving women can harbor doubts about whether they belong and even whether or not they are deserving of their own successes and achievements. Such internalized gender bias, when coupled with external stereotypes at work, may create a perfect storm of self-doubt, self-criticism, and the setting of impossible standards for performance.

A perfectionist is a tough person to mentor or coach. The most productive and meaningful relationships are characterized by transparency, reciprocity, openness, and trust. Yet a perfectionist never lets a mentor discern areas for growth and development. Not even relative weaknesses are shared. And so a perfectionist’s desperate need to appear flawless may sabotage the value of mentoring or coaching. Even if a mentor astutely diagnoses a mentee’s perfectionism, the mentee may resist the mentor’s efforts to accept imperfection.

What’s a mentor to do? Here are several imperfect but promising strategies for helping a mentee overcome the most insidious effects of perfectionism at work:

 

  • Check your own perfectionism at the door. Have you struggled with unreasonable personal standards and self-criticism? If so, be particularly cautious about the model you offer mentees, and appreciate the risk of — openly or subtly — endorsing a mentee’s self-defeating perfectionism.
  • Focus your mentoring on affirmation, validation, encouragement, and support. Express value for your mentee, not their performance, first and foremost. When your mentee falls short or believes they have failed, help them to cultivate a sense of curiosity, inquiry, and risk taking about what went wrong and different approaches for moving forward.
  • Firmly but kindly identify perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors in your mentee. Challenge them to learn to recognize and reject such unreasonable demands. You can try doing this through artful questioning, like Peter Falk in his character of Columbo (I’m confused, you’re insisting that you be perfect. But like the rest of us, you seem to be human, and of course we know that to err is human. Can you help me understand that?).
  • Employ well-timed self-disclosure about some of your own mistakes and missteps. Show your mentee how you learned from each mistake, how each has been an opportunity to grow professionally, and, most important, how you continue to accept and even like yourself as a fallible human being who strives for imperfect excellence.
  • Never pretend about competence you don’t have. It is often helpful to say, “I don’t know that, let’s find out together,” thereby giving your mentee permission to not have all the answers.
  • Use humor often but thoughtfully. In the anxiety-ridden world of the perfectionist, empathic humor can be medicine for the troubled soul. For instance, when irrational self-demands are expressed in the form of frequent and rigid “I shoulds,” a mentor might lightheartedly say, “I suspect that all that shoulding on yourself isn’t getting you anywhere. Let’s try a more reasonable approach.” Or try a paradoxical intervention to humorously highlight a mentee’s catastrophizing: “Yes, I’m certain you are correct. If you don’t perform flawlessly in the meeting this afternoon, I’ll bet both of us will be fired on the spot, end up homeless, and never be able to find work again.”
  • Push your mentee to be open to the very thing a perfectionist fears the most: imperfection. Elicit agreement from your mentee that they will deliberately make some minor mistakes and refuse to fix them. For instance, ask your mentee to send you an email filled with typos — and to tolerate the anxiety it may create.
  • Recognize and accept that perfectionists can be tough to help. And recognize that you are a thoroughly imperfect mentor.

W. Brad Johnson, PhD, is a professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a Faculty Associate at Johns Hopkins University. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women as well as other books about mentoring.

David G. Smith, PhD, is an active duty U.S. Navy Captain and Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy. He is the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women. His research focuses on gender, work, and family issues including dual career families, military families, women in the military, and retention of women.

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/02/how-to-mentor-a-perfectionist?referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date&spMailingID=17404743&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1040538160&spReportId=MTA0MDUzODE2MAS2

 

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