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Handle with care: how to deal with perfectionism

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Watch out for the perfectionists on your team, warns Greg Chasson, Associate Professor in Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, and author of the new book Flawed: Why Perfectionism is a Challenge for Management  they’ll need careful managing.  

While there are some wonderful upsides to perfectionism, there are some downsides that, if not kept in check, can prove counterproductive to your team’s work.  

How do you spot a perfectionist?  

A red flag, explains Chasson, is if you notice a slowdown in productivity across different tasks that seems to point to one individual as a common denominator.  

“It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s perfectionism, but you’re not going to see somebody who is speedy and efficient who’s also a perfectionist. Those two don’t go together.”  

Somebody who consistently misses a deadline but always delivers an amazing piece of work is probably a perfectionist. 

Perfectionists can also be excessive apologisers, says Chasson.  

“They’re apologising for things they have no reason to apologise for.” It’s an indicator that they are worried that their performance isn’t up to scratch, and that they are anxious about how they are being perceived.  

“Their reassurance seeking is also extremely excessive,” he explains. Paradoxically, their anxiety about their output can cause them to avoid and escape, so procrastination is probably the most common outcome. 

“Perfectionists tend to be very conscientious, honest and extremely hard working,” he says. “Perfectionism is a mixed bag. It comes with a lot of positive qualities.”  

Encourage and leverage their strengths and try to mitigate the problems that come with perfectionism. 

Five top tips 

A good thing to do is to create a project culture where perfectionism is discouraged. As project manager, you need to model flexible behaviour when it comes to getting stuff done — and show that this doesn’t mean sacrificing quality.  

“It means not getting stuck trying to pursue something that’s impossible, which is perfection,” Chasson says. 

Here are some tips on understanding and managing perfectionists so that their efficiency and productivity are kept on track. 

“Perfectionism is a disposition

“Ultimately,” says Chasson, “perfectionism undermines the purpose of whatever task you’re working on.” Why? Because perfectionists go beyond the pursuit of excellence to achieve their idea of perfect, no matter the cost. They can often get stuck trying to get something to feel ‘just right’ to them, when this might cost too much in terms of other tasks not getting done and deadlines getting missed. As a project manager, help them work out what their priorities should be, what ‘good enough’ looks like and when to stop. 

Help them allocate the right amount of effort to a task

Spending an inordinate amount of time or energy on a piece of work to take it from 95% to 100% probably won’t make any difference to the success of a project, whereas missed deadlines will. Be clear on the project’s priorities, and if hitting deadlines is what’s most important, make that clear. 

Allow them to make mistakes

No one likes making a mistake, but most of us expect to do so and, when it happens, we try to smooth things over, learn from it and move on. Perfectionists find it extremely difficult to do so. If you’re a manager of a perfectionist, Chasson suggests you encourage them to sit with their anxiety of making a mistake by asking them to do exposure exercises, where you can have them make a mistake on purpose – a typo in an email, for example – so they can get used to the feeling and know it will be okay. 

Attempt to reduce the amount of excessive behaviour

Ask your perfectionist to keep a close eye on something they do that is unnecessary and probably time wasting – such as checking an email three times before sending it. A quick read-through before it’s sent is all that is needed most of the time. Check these perfectionist tendencies before they creep up. 

Be sensitive when giving feedback

“Perfectionists tend to be oversensitive to feedback. When you tell them that they’re a perfectionist, they see that as them being imperfect.” It’s a paradox that needs to be handled carefully. When you speak to them, do it privately and gently as hearing this can be a bit shameful for them. A good thing to say is, “I'm noticing these tendencies. Here's what’s working and here’s what I'm struggling with,” Chasson advises. 

Greg Chasson’s new book Flawed: Why Perfectionism is a Challenge for Management is available now 


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