Leadership

How to manage the perfectionist on your team

Everyone wants a quality product. But perfectionists sometimes go too far and slow things down.

When I was very young, I used to think it was clever when asked in an interview about my biggest weakness to say that I was a bit of a perfectionist. Because who wouldn't want someone on their team who wanted to make sure everything was right?

It turns out I wouldn't. A few years later, I was managing a small team in a start-up that was growing rapidly. Much of the early success of this young company lay in the fact that we were flexible and innovative, and that allowed us to develop and create products in record time. This is not to say that we put out shoddy products. They were pretty darn good, but we knew that, in the business we were in, timeliness of delivery was just as important as the finished product.

So I had a guy on my team, I'll call him Biff, who was very committed to the quality of anything he worked on and was dedicated to the company as a whole. But I came to realize that every task I sent Biff's way would come to a screeching halt as he agonized over every detail. He would pepper me with questions that were so minor to the task at hand that the answers wouldn't affect the outcome and therefore were a waste of time to ask. Or he would present to me every conceivable (and some even inconceivable) scenario that could occur and ask how we would handle it if it happened.

His fixation on these kinds of things interfered with his process of setting priorities. His preoccupation with detail would inevitably lead to stalls in every project he was involved in. Also, he was unable to delegate because, on some level, he believed he was the only one who could do the task right.

Now I can hear all the perfectionists out there crying foul. "We need perfectionists to make sure the products or processes are the best they can be!" (For example, you would definitely look for perfectionist tendencies if you're shopping around for a brain surgeon.) But most corporate products, especially those not being physically consumed, don't have to be "perfect."

And there is an issue with the definition of what constitutes "perfection." What paralyzes the perfectionist is that they want things to be perfect, but their standards of perfection are too high to be achievable, especially in their own eyes. It's a catch-22.

So how do you manage a perfectionist on your team?

  • Appreciate what's positive about the perfectionist. He or she may see details that you won't.
  • Be careful with feedback. I think sometimes that criticism triggers something in the heads of perfectionists that makes them dig their heels in even further.
  • Don't give them very complex, strategic tasks, especially ones that require managing others. Assign them tasks that need a fastidious eye, the more tactical the better.
  • Assign deadlines. In fact, it may be the first question a perfectionist asks you upon assignment of a task because it's one more aspect they need to get right.
  • Make sure you highlight often the behavior you want to see more of.
  • Help the person to see how the behavior might limit their career growth. A tendency to micromanage and an inability to see the big picture might limit leadership avenues for a perfectionist.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

7 comments
Mihi Nomen Est
Mihi Nomen Est

... those fixated on perfection tend to focus upon the little things - the details. Why? Because everyone could see the big things and they'd be taken care of. But someone had to champion the resources to focus upon the little things - what they figured would make a project perfect. Or a book. I worked in publishing computer books. The thing about perfection is you can't make something perfect and still make it to the shelves. If a book isn't on the shelves, you can't sell it. I was sitting in a meeting with the "big suits" vs. the "local suits". My publisher asked me a question and my response was, "I don't know". "You don't know?" "Yep. But I can find an answer for you in about ten minutes. ( A young Web without search engines and search engines without a web), TGFU (Thank God For Usenet) a web The associate publisher made the mistake of opening his mouth and yammered away. After about 20 seconds, one of the big suits interrupted him and asked, "You don't know, do you?" If I don't know, I don't know. But I will offer to produce a guess. Speaking of publishing: they decided to put a book of Microsoft VIsual C++ 1.0 (July 1993) And decided to skip the Development Editor and Technical Editors.

marat-oz
marat-oz

Steve Jobs was a perfectionist. Intel creators are perfectionists, they have no other choice, do they? Is it a good or a bad thing? I think the case here was not about perfectionist but inexperienced person or someone with bad work practice. The first thing I learned at the beginning of my career is not to bother my manager often with the small questions but to come up with the summary of findings, the scope and risks to discuss.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I like to get things right myself, real life IT didn't teach me to not to be like that, it taught me to redefine "right". Everybody says they want quality, well yeah, they also want quick and cheap as well...

FRodriguez2010
FRodriguez2010

Interesting to read from the non-perfectionist point of view, So in essence you are saying it is OK to not be so critical and to not ensure the quality of a product? CTQ comes to mind here. Being a perfectionist can be healthy to a point, I do agree it can hinder progress, but we are needed, because we do sweat the details and can conceive just about every "just in case" scenario. We can be your quality inspectors and unify overall procedures to place everyone on the same page. We add foundation to what can be a shaky process in creating a product or service. Yet, just like too much of a good thing can be considered bad, so is being too perfect and setting unreachable expectations for ourselves. We need to give ourselves a break, no one is perfect. But we sure come close! :-)

tommy
tommy

I've a guy in the team who ticks almost every one of your boxes with regards spotting one. There's a bigger problem for me to overcome in this scenario though, much as your advice rings true. He's the boss!

dsubhedar
dsubhedar

Steve was not perfectionist if he was you would not have Iphone 1,2,3,4. He should have put all the features on first version of Iphone. He was a true innovator.

emad
emad

He had to learn from his mistakes but he is still a perfectionist according to those whom worked with him. He is not perfect but he is a perfectionist!