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Thinking About Leadership and Management. . .

Guiding the Perfectionist Manager

Pity the perfectionist manager! How can she possibly delegate to staff when she knows they won’t do nearly as good a job as she could? She expects nothing more of her team than she does of herself, and yet time and time again they disappoint. As a result managing is frustrating and stressful. What can she do?

The perfectionist requires that work product be excellent, no matter the time and energy that this may require. Unfortunately, this approach to discrete pieces of work is fundamentally at odds with what it takes to be a great manager. Successful management is about balancing—numerous tasks must be juggled, staff limitations in working effectively today must be balanced with building a successful team for the future, planning must be balanced with improvising, and so on.  But the perfectionist is not a balancer. 

Guiding perfectionists to be better managers requires helping them to link their unhelpful behaviors the underlying mindset.  Examples of such behaviors can be trouble prioritizing, working unnecessary long hours, delays in producing work that's been delegated to others, and difficulties with collaboration may all be signs that you're dealing with a perfectionist. 

The good news is that perfectionists tend to be comfortable self-identifying and very self-movitated—they want to be better than they are. They are also likely to value you’re opinion very highly. The bad news is that they are unlikely to see the perfectionism as the problem. They’ll want to focus on how they can get those around them to perform, well, more like them. Although that's not likely to be the right issue, it does give you a foot in the door. 

Here’s a few things you can try—

De-emphasize the work quality.  Your staff will take their cues about what's most important from what you talk to them about.  So focus the perfectionist on the process. To the extent you're discussing a piece of work, ask questions about how much—and whose—time went into a project, whether everyone involved played the roles they were expected to, and what happened to everything else on the team's plate. Ask about how her team-members felt about the assignment (she won’t know the first time you ask).  Your goal is to get them to contend with the many aspects of managing—and the balancing and trade-offs those require--not just the quality of the final product.

Don’t make their decisions for them. Perfectionists can be uncomfortable with the absence of a “right” answer and will often look to you to just tell them what to do. But to be good managers they need to be able to work with a lack of adequate information and to assess risks that come with uncertainty. Try to articulate for them how you make decisions in the face of uncertainty and demonstrate your equanimity when things don't turn out the way you anticipate. In discussing their options, you can help them see the longer term implications of decisions that prioritize the short term.  Ask them about the different risks that they considered.  You can even suggest other factors that they haven't weighed.  But be careful not to tip your hand--the goal is for them to learn how to make decisions, not how to figure out what you want them to do.

Redefine perfection.  In addition to trying to sideline or undermine perfectionism (which is what the first two suggestions are about), you can also try to make it your friend.  Help your perfectionist to see that being a "perfect" manager is radically different from being a "perfect" do-er. If she's able to do so, she will need to reconsider those approaches that made her so successful as an individual performer. All those extra hours spent on Project A will be less a badge of honor than a sign that resources weren’t allocated effectively. Micromanaging will not be a necessary evil to assure excellent work but rather an impediment to building a high fucntioning team. Shifting the lens may help shift the behaviors that the perfectionist will aspire to.      

Focus on learning and growth, not accountability. The hallmark of the perfectionist is that she’s overcommitted to her own accountability, so you'll probably have little to add here.  Spend time focused on her development as a manger. How is she working with others?  How well is she adjusting when things don’t go her way. Is she willing and able to identify things that she could be doing differently?  How is she managing her frustration level?

You are not going to “cure” the perfectionist who, after all, does not need curing.  But if you can help her identify how she might be getting in the way of her own success, you will be doing her a great service.  You can create incentives for her to adjust behaviors, coach her as she works through these and model how to act when things don’t go exactly as you hope, when your staff fails to live up to your expectations, when you need to change tacks to get where you’re going.  After all, it isn’t only perfectionists who struggle to be succesful managers.