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.
Toni Bowers is the former 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.