How to manage a perfectionist

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Perfectionism is a spectrum and all of us fall on it somewhere. (If you want to know exactly where you fall, here's a test that will tell you.) But as a manager, there's a certain line in the sand that denotes "the perfectionist" on your team. They are normally easy to spot. They fuss over every detail, agonizing over every font and margin point. They put in hours of overtime the week a project is due, stressing over the final polishes.

There is no greater pleasure than working with someone who takes pride in their work, who will never say "it's good enough" just to get the project over with. Their high standards and attention to detail raise the bar for everyone else on the team, making even the happy-go-lucky ones take notice and care about sloppiness and errors.

But working with a perfectionist has its pitfalls. Excessive fussiness can mean a deadline is missed over a triviality. And ironically, perfectionists tend to give off negative vibes, never thinking their work - or anyone else's - is good enough.

One perfectionist I've managed is a web designer who won't start a project until she has an exact vision of the perfect website she's aiming to create. Once this is solidified in her head, she will work her tailbone off until the website she's created matches that vision. But it may be weeks before she feels ready to tackle the project because that image of perfection takes time to develop. So you know you'll get gold, but you never know when.

It is not possible to change a perfectionist's basic tendencies, unless they want to change themselves. But years of management experience have taught me a thing or two about best practices in how to harness and capitalize on a perfectionist's strengths, in short, how to manage a perfectionist.

First, think very carefully about who you choose to partner with them on a project. Perfectionists find it very hard to work with team members who are not as skilled or talented as they are. Don't expect them to train inexperienced coworkers or pick up the slack for slower ones. They'll just be overly critical of their colleagues and stress themselves out.

Similarly, don't even consider making them project managers. The hardest thing for a perfectionist to do is manage someone else.

It can be frustrating to give a project over to a perfectionist and find that they sweat the details more than necessary. But never ask them to submit subpar work. Nothing demoralizes them more and you will only lose their respect and trust.

If a project is on a tight deadline and there is no time for perfection, delegate the work to others or outsource it completely, but don't make the mistake of asking a perfectionist to deliver something that they consider to be less than perfect. You can also split the project between team members. The perfectionist won't be happy about losing control over part of the project but it's better than the alternative.

An example from my perfectionist web designer: if I need a new website up ASAP, I'll give the design to my perfectionist to do but I'll either give responsibility for its delivery to other team members or even outsourced it entirely. The perfectionist will loathe the imperfect results, but if the imperfections were her own, she wouldn't be able to live with herself.

If you discover that you have a perfectionist on your team, embrace the challenge. The rewards of successfully channeling a perfectionist's strengths are well worth the effort.

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