Managing perfectionists

Do you have perfectionists on your team?

Always thought that was convenient and good for productivity? That one employee who always keeps going when everyone else has already gone home. Or that super-motivated colleague who never says no when you ask to take on that extra job.

Unfortunately, perfectionism does more harm than good. The effects on the person’s well-being, as well as procrastination, the focus on uncertainty reduction and the negative effects on interpersonal social relationships mean that, as a manager, it is better not to encourage this perfectionism. But how?

Below are seven tips for leading perfectionists (from the book The Perfection Paradox). Below you will find a download that you can use as a handy reminder.

1. Delegate in parts

Delegating tasks and giving responsibility is a sign of trust. For you as a manager, it is important to delegate well because you can never do the work all by yourself. Moreover, there may be team members who are much better at certain tasks than you are. For your team members, it is also another clear signal of recognition and appreciation for their efforts. But with perfectionists, a warning is in order. Many perfectionists suffer from procrastination because they have such high, unachievable demands that they do not fully oversee the task. Uncertainty about whether they are fit for the job can play tricks on them. So delegating to perfectionists requires some extra attention.

  • Be clear about the desired end result: do not desire perfection! Make it clear what needs to be delivered and especially what you need that result for.
  • Preferably, divide a large job into smaller sub-products. If you want to delegate a large assignment, help the perfectionist to formulate partial results himself. Emphasize that a partial result, by definition, means that it is not yet finished, so you are not demanding perfection.

2. Organize feedback

Guide your team members with providing regular feedback. This does not always have to be done in a formal way. Have regular conversations about their work. What are they doing? What goes well? How did they manage to do that? What is inconvenient or annoying? What ways do they see to address that? These conversations are not about you knowing everything or giving the solution. Precisely not. Your main contribution is to ask questions, keeping the process going with your team members.

Are you concerned that these regular conversations may give the impression that you don’t trust them? There is a simple remedy for that: speak up. For example, say, “I’m curious about how you handle the work and what you run into. I’m confident that you do it well and I’d like to learn from that. Can you tell me more about it?” A regular appointment to discuss work progress with each other helps. This makes it a recurring habit and the conversation is not limited to the moments when something goes wrong. Moreover, with these conversations, you foster the climate of open communication about blockages that your team members might experience and normalize that mistakes and setbacks can be shared.

Perfectionists sometimes take on a lot of work, making them lose sight of the forest for the trees. Help your team members prioritize.

3. Help prioritize

Perfectionists who put a lot of work on themselves and also procrastinate sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees. Do you notice that in your team? Help your team members prioritize. Don’t add to to-do lists without asking the question of which chore will then move down a spot on the priority list. You can also make visualize this by prioritizing all projects on a whiteboard or online collaboration tool.

Does someone on your team need extra attention? Begin the week with a brief bilateral meeting to go over the coming days together and ask the other person where the focus of that week or that day will be. By doing this consistently, not taking over the prioritization but guiding the other person in it, you encourage the skill of prioritization in your team.

4. Boundaries

With prioritizing comes bounding. And setting boundaries is a big challenge for perfectionists. This starts with limiting work time. Be active in learning to limit work time and setting boundaries around the hours that one can be reached. Ask your people to consciously relax and schedule time for recovery. If you don’t, they may be of great use to you now, but in the long run you may encounter great risks of dropout and burnout. Are your team members still emailing late in the evening? Speak to them about it. Do they never take a break? Urge them to do so. Set a good example yourself. Go to lunch regularly instead of eating at your desk, and bring your colleagues with you. Turn off your laptop at night and put your phone away. And if you really need to send that email message before you go to sleep? You can easily set the mail to be delivered later, so it will not land in your team’s inbox at 11:30 at night. Remember: people don’t do what you say, but what you do. And nowhere does this apply more strongly than in protecting your (free) time.

Reward the process people go through. Express appreciation for their resilience and ability to learn.

5. Reward process and effort more than results

In the short term, delivering results is something to be happy and proud of. In the long run, you want your team to continue to develop their skills more than anything, so that they will be effective not only today but also next month and next year. For the latter, it is crucial that you facilitate an environment of learning and growth.

Reward the process people go through and emphasize this process and this growth more often than emphasizing the final result achieved. Highlight what approach was taken, what obstacles there were, how they were dealt with and what was learned from them. Express appreciation for resilience and learning ability. Of course your team may see that you are happy with the result. No need to hide that. But don’t leave it at that. For the perfectionists on your team, your attention to the process and what was learned in it gives them room to learn for themselves and be less focused on an unachievable ideal.

6. Dealing with mistakes

The most important moment for a manager who wants to properly supervise their perfectionist team members occurs in the moment mistakes are made. After all, this is exactly what a perfectionist wants to avoid. In this moment, the perfectionist feels the fear of rejection. So then it comes down to how you respond as their manager.

Perhaps you are irritated, frustrated, disappointed or angry. Whatever emotion you experience is understandable. However, how you convert that emotion into behavior is crucial and has the greatest impact on what happens next. Are you freaking out? Do you react stressed and panicked? Do you micro-manage or take your employee off the job and then give it to another team member? The perfectionist on your team will pay keen attention to the consequence of the mistake made. That puts a lot of pressure on you as a manager. Because how you feel in that moment is not so easy to influence. But what you can influence is how your emotion is expressed in your behavior.

The most important tool at your disposal to guide your behavior in such a difficult moment is your breathing. Take a deep breath and calm your own mind before you say or do anything. Through your breathing, you increase your bandwith and literally make time to respond consciously rather than react from your autopilot. Then, use all the insights you have gained in this book to emphasize that making mistakes is part of the learning process. Realize that mistakes happen in all places where people work (together). And that the important thing now is to see what you can do to fix the mistake AND how you can learn from the mistake made for next time.

Make sure you don’t contribute extra to unattainable ideal pictures your teammembers may already be focused on. Be ambitious, but don’t set unachievable goals.

7. Don’t create an ideal image

Be mindful that a perfectionist has unachievable ideal pictures in his head like no other. That ideal image is paralyzing because it is unattainable. What you can do about this as a manager is to make sure that you are not adding extra weight to these ideal pictures. That means being careful in describing what you expect from your team. Be realistic. Don’t set unachievable goals. Be ambitious, yes, but discuss with your team what is and is not possible and what resources are available to them to achieve it. In addition, be careful about comparing within your team and encouraging unhealthy competition. If someone on your team is performing very well, make sure you do not label that person as the ideal to be pursued. Instead, ask if that person would like to help another team member so that everyone on the team gets better. And name the skill that the person has mastered well so that it is clear what can be learned.

The basics under all these tips are these two principles:
– Act from appreciation for your team. If you don’t like or like your team members enough to put this effort into them, ask yourself if you wouldn’t be better off looking for another job. Your team members are entitled to a leader who respects them and enjoys helping them develop. And you yourself are entitled to a job that gives you satisfaction.
– Don’t do yourself what you don’t want others to do. And what you don’t begrudge another, don’t do yourself. The space you wish for another, start by giving yourself that space. This is the best way to develop a meaningful relationship with your employees, in which there is room for honest conversations about what could be better, to express appreciation for all that is already there and to show compassion for that which is tough and difficult.

And above all, remember this: perfection does not exist, not even in leadership.

Want to know more about perfectionism? In the book The Perfection Paradox, you will discover exactly what perfectionism is, what forms it takes, why we think it makes us better and how harmful it is. Includes practical tips and advice. Read more about The Perfection Paradox.


Gift for you: free download with 7 tips

As a bonus to celebrate the arrival of the translation of my book, you can download these 7 tips as a handy reminder. Click on the image or the link below.

Download the 7 tips (+ 4 additional pieces of advice)

Read blogs like this more often? Browse this website. There is more information at hand. Based on scientific insights and practically translated into actions for every day. A different perspective on how you do things and an invitation to make courageous choices. Let me know your thoughts



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