At face value, the idea of managing an employee seeking perfection sounds like a dream come true. They may be more likely to go that extra mile to reach a higher standard, dedicated and productive – and they may even boost the morale of those around them. If managed correctly, they may well be a great asset to a company.
The tendency to seek perfection is becoming more common. A study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin in 2018 analysed the data of more than 40,000 British, US and Canadian college students between the 1980s and 2016. The results showed today’s students, compared to prior generations, are far harder on themselves, more demanding of others, and report higher levels of social pressure to be perfect.
There’s nothing wrong with striving to learn and improve your skills, problems can arise when perfectionists go too far. There is a fine line between healthy self-improvement and harmful self-criticism. Perfection can be damaging and lead to people obsessively chasing flawlessness, while leading us to be overly critical of ourselves and others. In many cases, it leads to huge internal pressure that can take its toll on mental health.
Perfectionism can be self-defeating, too. Making mistakes and learning from them is arguably one of the best ways to develop and progress in your career. By avoiding mistakes at all costs, an employee may never reach their own, potentially unrealistic goals.
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“Instead of managing their time and workloads effectively, perfectionists can become fixated on one project, spending hours on a piece of work and letting other commitments go by the wayside,” Alan Price, CEO and HR expert at HR software firm, BrightHR. Perfectionists may also find it difficult to delegate, which may cause friction with other colleagues.
“Work they have done themselves, or by colleagues, may never seem good enough and always need more tinkering before it can be considered complete,” he says. “Worryingly, by over-focusing on that last 2% of a project, perfectionists are placing themselves in danger of becoming stressed and anxious, something that could quickly progress to more serious mental health problems if left unchecked.”
So what is the best way to manage a perfectionist – and make the most of their desire to succeed?
When giving feedback, Price says perfectionists may find it challenging to accept negative comments. “Feedback must focus on the positives on how they work as much as the comments for improvement,” he advises. “Perfectionists should be reminded that there is no such thing as a perfect piece of work, especially as they progress to more senior roles. Continuously striving to reach an impossible goal will only serve to hold them back, going forward.
“If such conversations do prove challenging for both manager and employee, it may also be worth asking the individual themselves for how they would like to receive feedback to ascertain the best way of going about this.”
It may help to have an honest, sensitive conversation with the employee to help them be more self-aware, too. Make sure you express your gratitude for their hard work and highlight times when their perfectionism has been beneficial to the company. Also point out any worries you may have about how much pressure they place on themselves or others too.
If you notice that the employee has spent too much time or is too focused on something, it may help to gently encourage them to move on.
There is no quick fix when it comes to helping a perfectionist do things differently. Instead, time and patience are necessary and may well lead to beneficial results.
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“After all, they should never just be expected to change; the best results will come from helping and encouraging them to. It is, therefore, always important that employers should bear in mind the strengths and limitations of their employees when assigning workloads,” Price says.
If a project needs to be done quickly, it may be better to give it to another employee who is better at managing tight deadlines.
“However, if a project does require a degree of time and scrutiny, it would likely be perfect for the perfectionist,” he adds. “By encouraging staff to play to their strengths, employers are more likely to see a happier, more fulfilled workforce that feels supported and nurtured in their roles.”