Updated: Sep 5
by Angie Min
One of the most common answers to the classic interview question, “what’s your biggest weakness?” is perfectionism. But could perfectionism actually be a weakness?
Perfectionists can be seen as assets to a business as they are often responsible, meticulous and consistent in their high quality of work. So why do we need to talk about how to effectively manage a perfectionist employee at work?
Perfectionism, like many traits, comes as a double edged sword. And it can come with steep costs where it’s not managed and self-regulated appropriately. It can be truly exhausting, thankless and make relationships in and out of work difficult. As well, individuals with perfectionist traits are often at a far greater risk of burnout - one of the top causes for leaving a job in 2022.
If you’re noticing that either you, or one of your colleagues are displaying strong perfectionist tendencies, this article’s for you. Continue reading to learn how to lead and manage a perfectionist employee effectively.
1. Be as clear as possible about what’s important and what’s not
Perfectionists tend to assume everything on their plate is both urgent and important. They can drive themselves into the ground, slogging away unnecessarily for tasks that, to a manager/leader, aren’t actually that crucial.
This is doubly true in remote work settings or if an employee is new. As a manager/leader, you might know in your head that this task is nice to do but is not due COB yesterday. However, where this is not communicated verbally and explicitly, a perfectionist may default to assuming it is top priority. Of course, communication is a two way street and an employee should step forward and ask about deadlines etc. However, an individual with low confidence and high perfectionism may struggle to ask you about priorities or a heavy workload for fear of coming across as incompetent.
2. Verbally communicate when enough is enough
Perfectionists can agonise over the smallest details, and this is exacerbated when tight deadlines are attached to a task. Similar to the above, having a leader verbally communicate, “this is good enough” or “we can leave that until next week” can truly make the difference between stressfully burning the midnight oil and being able to sleep easier at night. Although a perfectionist’s default might be one of, “do it now and do it well”, having a reminder from above that it’s time to call it a day could help them recalibrate their sense of urgency.
3. Offer verbal reassurance regularly
We all know that praising employees out loud or in a kind message is related to stronger employee engagement and happiness at work. But this is particularly the case for perfectionists who, at the root of their high performance, suffer critically low self esteem. Simply reminding them they are doing a great job, even when things don’t go perfectly, helps perfectionists loosen the slack they give themselves.
This is particularly the case in remote work where we’re all guilty of giving an employee praise mentally yet not actually letting them know. Without taking a moment to express gratitude and praise to your employee, you could be missing out on giving that employee this appreciation and thus strengthening your relationship.
4. Offer routine 1-1 check ins
Ambiguity is often one of the worst fears of a perfectionist. Where messages or email queries go unanswered, this can often send a perfectionist’s alarm bells ringing. Setting aside weekly 1-1 meetings for this team member will be invaluable. If it is framed in a way that this time is their safe space to discuss what work they have on, any queries or worries, this will tremendously help with a perfectionist’s sense of routine and stability in their work.
5. Consider 1-1 Coaching
While all of the above are absolutely important and effective ways to manage a perfectionist employee, we should do well to remember that things don’t change overnight. Often, they will find it hard to change or may not even want to. Even if it’s to their own professional and personal detriment. This is where 1-1 coaching can help perfectionistic employees better temper their expectations and view of themselves. By working with an external professional, this individual can explore what’s at the root of their perfectionism, battle cognitive distortions and experiment with new ways of working in a safe space. Though it may not seem necessary to involve an external intervention, this could be something that ultimately saves a perfectionist from poor consequences such as burnout and leaving their job.