There’s one in every office: the guy who’s forever working but struggles to meet deadlines; someone who nitpicks her colleagues’ work but won’t let anyone near her own until it’s gleaming. Perfectionism is that unoffending weakness oft-cited in job interviews, and a quality lately glamorized by all the frothing tributes to today’s most famous perfectionist, the late Steve Jobs.
But in the average office, for the average manager, perfectionists can be a handful. According to Jeff Szymanski, author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes, perfectionists come in healthy and unhealthy varieties. “On the extreme end, perfectionism is one of the sub-types of OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder],” he says. “But generally, it’s a personality trait.” At their best, perfectionists are thorough and dependable because of their attention to detail, while their high expectations feed a strong work ethic. At their worst, however, they fixate on details and can’t prioritize tasks. Because their goals are unattainably high, they beat themselves up when they can’t achieve them. They reel at the slightest criticism.
The key for managers, says Szymanski, is to figure out what drives an employee’s perfectionism. “At their core, a perfectionist is just someone who wants to do something well,” he says. “But they get caught by their strategy—they usually insist that it has to be done a certain way.” Above all, Szymanski advises, communicate clearly with a perfectionist. “Always spell out the specific expectations for a project,” he says. For example, if you’re looking for just a general concept, say that explicitly; otherwise, you’ll get unnecessary detail.
Dolly Kao, a 42-year-old lawyer in Toronto, is a self-described perfectionist. As someone who used to manage a small staff, she knows perfectionism from both sides, and has learned that getting the most out of perfectionists requires putting restrictions on their ability to be perfect, such as a time frame. “For me, my clients keep me reined in because I can’t charge more than $10,000 for a job,” she says. Forced to be efficient, Kao has devised a system of shortcuts, such as document templates, to ensure quality is built into the process as much as possible.
Another trick in managing perfectionists is to recognize which tasks best suit them. Kao excels at writing accurate, winning patent applications, but has difficulty delegating without checking up on the files. “I am aware that perfectionists make bad managers!” she says, laughing. “But I make active efforts to suppress those tendencies.”
Aside from clear communication, Szymanski suggests bosses insist on regular collaboration. “Perfectionists want to be evaluated only when they are at their best, so they hide their rough drafts,” he says. “Ask them to share works in progress, which reduces the likelihood that they’ll get lost in the details.”
One senior manager at a large accounting firm in Ottawa who asked not to be named recommends asking for drafts of reports being prepared by perfectionists. “Tell them you’re reviewing the report tomorrow. You’re not asking them to finish it but to get it as complete as they can,” he says. “And push the message that it doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Self-aware perfectionists can be easier to manage; by nature, they want to please and improve. But even the oblivious stickler is open to suggestions. “There’s a misconception that all perfectionists are completely rigid and inflexible,” says Szymanski. “If you show them a credible alternative that still matches and meets their goals, they’ll try a different strategy.”