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How to Work For (or With) a Perfectionist

Recently, while leading a workshop on the topic of stress management, one attendee mentioned that her boss was a perfectionist and this was placing an added strain on her daily work experience. As a perfectionist myself, I completely understood the dilemma she was facing. All kinds of challenges come up when dealing with this character trait.

Working for or with a perfectionist is bound to cause some tension. In my experience, perfectionists may:

  • Be overly critical of others.

The drive to make things “perfect” means you have to live up to an unrealistic standard.

  • Be overly controlling.

Trust is hard to come by for most perfectionists. The only way they can know work is being done up to par is simply to do it themselves.

  • Have trouble with priorities.

Many perfectionists don’t distinguish between what’s really important and what’s not. It ALL has to be perfect. “Good enough” is never okay even for the small, trivial stuff.  

  • Procrastinate or miss deadlines.

When you’re trying so hard to make things perfect, time often gets the better of you.

So, how do you function around someone like this? How do you manage your workload in an environment where “perfect” is the standard against which your performance is measured? Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind.

Call It Like You See It
If someone—even your boss—is harping on insignificant details, wasting time trying to obtain an unnecessary or impossible level of perfection, it’s your responsibility to acknowledge it. Tell the person exactly what you’re seeing and how it’s impacting the goals of the team. Be respectful and professional, and provide an honest assessment.

Sometimes, perfectionists will get so wrapped up in the minute details, they’ll forget about the bigger picture. Giving them a heads up will sometimes break the spell and help them move forward.

Help Establish Priorities
The simple fact is that, in most daily business operations, there are only a small fraction of tasks that really matter, but perfectionists will often lump everything into one pile. This means that even the trivial, almost irrelevant work is being treated like it could make or break the company. Help establish priorities by discussing the broader impacts of the project at hand. Is it really worth the time and energy being used? Compare it to other opportunities and rank its importance.

For example, if one PowerPoint slide has a slightly fuzzy image, will the audience really even notice? And if so, what will be the consequence? In relation to the other tasks on the to-do list, is the time it takes to fix the image really worthwhile? Sometimes, the answer will clearly be, “Yes, it’s worth it.” Other times, it really won’t matter and you can move on, letting the slightly fuzzy image go by unnoticed.

Don’t Take It Personally
Working for or with a perfectionist means you may often feel like you’re being subjected to a special kind of torture. But keep in mind: It’s not you. It’s them. The critical eye with which they look at you and your work also points right back to them. They see everything as imperfect and that’s a painful way to live. Most perfectionists recognize it’s a problem, but still have a hard time setting aside those instincts. So just remind yourself that YOU (and your work) aren’t the problem.

Be Understanding…and Patient
At the end of the day, perfectionists only want to do their very best. And they want the same from everyone around them. Irritating as it may be, it’s still a noble cause. Cut the perfectionist in your life a little slack. It can be a slow road to recovery. Though of course, he or she may never get there.

A few years ago, I actually worked for a gentleman who made my perfectionist tendencies look microscopic. There were days when, after redoing a task multiple times to meet his ridiculous expectations, I thought I would simply explode. But we slowly figured out how to make it work. Sometimes, I would just bite my tongue and follow his lead. So he eventually learned that, if I was willing to battle it out, he was going too far.

There’s no easy way to work for or with a perfectionist. But with these tips, you’ll be better prepared for the inevitably difficult road ahead.

Photo Credit: Gryphus31 (Flickr)

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2 Responses to “How to Work For (or With) a Perfectionist”

  1. […] How Nourishing is YOUR Career?. Thanks for visiting.A little while back, I wrote an article called How to Work For (or With) a Perfectionist. And it got me thinking…I could probably write a whole series of these. I could substitute […]

  2. Charles Jenkinson says:

    Perfectionism may be a noble cause, but it’s not as liberating (for all concerned) as excellence. Excellence is fit for purpose, and has an attitude of grace, sufficient to cover minor details of how one would do it differently. Tick-box controlling cultures unfortunately don’t lead to getting things done in the most efficient ways. Concept is more important than detail. We just have to determine and perhaps painfully negotiate at what point the definition of the detail becomes more important than the intial concept.

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