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Leadership and Management

Guiding the Perfectionist Manager

Pity the perfectionist manager!  How can she delegate to staff knowing that 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 again, they disappoint.  Not surprisingly, she finds managing to be frustrating and stressful.  Sometimes she acts out.  Pity her team as well!  They aren’t oblivious.  They know they’re being micromanaged and underappreciated.  Sometimes they act out.

The perfectionist requires that work product be excellent, no matter the time and energy that this may require.  If you supervise perfectionists, you’ve probably benefited from their willingness and capacity to get the job done.  

Unfortunately, this approach to discrete pieces of work is inconsistent with being a good manager.  Successful management requires balancing—tasks must be juggled, priorities readjusted, existing staff weaknesses must be confronted in the interests of building a successful team for the future, planning must be balanced with improvising, and so on.  But the perfectionist is not a balancer. 

You may have seen the danger signs early on—difficulties prioritizing or switching gears, working unnecessarily long hours, struggles with collaboration, a level of dissatisfaction that others aren’t putting enough into the work.  But you often won’t engage with the perfectionist’s struggle until a serious problem emerges. How to start?  

  • Commit to success!  Lots of perfectionists become great managers.  The self-awareness of most perfectionists, along with their capacity for hard work and drive to excel are wonderful assets.  Managing may be really tough, but they can do it, with your help.  

  • Empathize.  The perfectionist may not have struggled professionally before.  Their mindset and approach, having led them to so much success, are not delivering this time.  This can be scary.  If you are going to help the perfectionist to move forward, you must be seen as an ally. Listen, even if they seem to be blaming others.  Be kind.

  • Be direct.  After hearing them out, you need to share what you’re seeing and establish alignment around addressing the challenges.  The perfectionist may not have a lot of experience in hearing negative feedback, may not be very good at processing it, certainly may not like it.  But she needs it.  Better it comes from you in a supportive environment than from colleagues or direct reports who may be less interested in or able to help.  Don’t be surprised if your support comes as an enormous relief to the perfectionist who was feeling so alone. 

  • Take some of the blame.  You clearly haven’t done enough to prepare the perfectionist for success as a manager.  Maybe you took advantage of the perfectionist’s outstanding work ethic to keep your own workload manageable or so that you could focus on squeakier wheels.  As the perfectionist’s supervisor, you taking some ownership of the situation can mitigate potential defensiveness, encourage collaboration and model good management practice.

These initial steps can get you to the starting line. But what do you do now?  Each perfectionist is different and each situation will require you to use a custom set of tools and approaches.  Here’s a starter kit:

  • Focus on learning and growth, not accountability. The hallmark of the perfectionist is that she’s overcommitted to her own accountability, so there’s little benefit in you reinforcing this.  Instead, focus on her learning to be a good 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?

    Ask questions about how much—and who’s—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 (prepare for a blank face the first time you ask).  Your goal is to get the perfectionist to contend with the many aspects of managing—and the balancing and trade-offs those require—not just the quality of the final product.

  • Push them to make choices. 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 they need to be able to move forward with incomplete information and to accept the possibility of failure.  Offer up your experience of making decisions in the face of uncertainty and your equanimity when things don't turn out the way you anticipate.  As they evaluate options, focus on the balancing—the risks on all sides and in particular, the longer term implications of decisions that prioritize the short term.  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.  Sometimes you just need to lean into the perfectionism.  Help your perfectionist to see that being a "perfect" manager is radically different from being a "perfect" individual performer.  What does perfect balancing look like?  How about perfect risk assessment?  Aiming for excellence is not a bad thing and it can be channeled.  Even into management.    

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