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Business Home > Opinion Analysis
Perfectionists in the workplace

Oksana Tashakova (MAXIMISE YOUR POTENTIAL) / 15 July 2012

Many people proclaim that they are perfectionists with pride and many organisations believe it to be a beneficial quality.

Many Type-A personalities, for example, are perfectionists. An incredible work ethic and supreme attention to detail can be of great benefit to your organisation. On the other hand, someone that can’t prioritise, holds up projects, and demands the same level of energy and flawlessness from everyone around them can create escalating problems.

Perfectionists have a hard time believing that anyone can do things as well as they can and so may be unable to delegate or micromanage people until they can’t stand it anymore. Their ideals can blow deadlines and they’re often so used to functioning in this way that repercussions and warnings don’t impact their behaviour.

Harvard Business School professor Thomas Delong says that perfectionists “actually believe no one can do it better” and “they will focus on the last two per cent excessively when 94 per cent is good enough.” He adds, however, that “You can’t be a perfectionist without having your head, heart and soul in the game,” and that perfectionists can raise standards of other employees because of what they role model.

L.A. Times’ Donna Walters writes of Type-A, perfectionist Lawrence Stupski who was president of Charles Schwab in the 1990’s. Stupski created incredible growth for the company but his perfectionism cost him his marriage and affected the family lives of many of his employees.

Stupski didn’t see this penchant as a problem. Pushing himself and others to higher levels of achievement was a good thing: perfectionists see themselves as champions.

Eventually, Stupski’s employees revolted. They told him that they needed more authority, latitude and responsibility or the company could not flourish. Before the president could even begin trying to make real changes, he had a major heart attack at age 46. Today Stupski challenges people to combat perfectionism.

A 10-year study of over 9,000 managers has found that perfectionism causes illness, most commonly cardiovascular disease, headaches, high blood pressure and migraines, reports Walters. And even though companies value the competence, commitment and intelligence of perfectionists, they can ruin the job satisfaction of other employees, delay decisions and harm businesses financially in the long run. Perfectionists are so concerned with their own needs that they lack compassion and empathy.

So what if you’re the perfectionist? Psychologist Jeff Szymanski specialises in the disorder. He tells Anne Fisher of CNN that there are four things self-proclaimed perfectionists can do to reduce the negative impact the condition has on their life and that of others: get input; set priorities, hold others accountable and have more fun.

Seeking feedback along the way can be difficult for the perfectionist says Szymanski, because they only want people to see their best work but it’s an important practice for many reasons. It helps the perfectionist understand how to prioritize; it helps them to become aware of when they’re over-focusing in one area; and it helps them learn to accept collaborative efforts.

Perfectionists can learn to prioritise themselves: how to decide what are the five most crucial tasks and how to let go of the others.

Perfectionists often have trouble delegating because an employee isn’t really putting in best effort. Szymanski says that making expectations crystal clear can help: holding others accountable.

Szymanski says that the anxious and driven perfectionist must also try and stop worrying about everything, that they must learn to enjoy what they’re doing. Plenty of research shows that the best performances occur when people are truly engaged — not when they’re worried about making a mistake.

What if you have a perfectionist employee to supervise or manage? There are things you can do to get the best out of them and minimise the negative potential. Appreciate the fact that they’re committed to excellence and that they raise the standards of those around them. Then consider whether they’re in the right position. Some perfectionists will never be good managers because they can’t delegate, can’t stop micromanaging or are too critical of others according to Harvard Business professor Robert Steven Kaplan. Others don’t do with change or great complexity. There are plenty of positions that benefit from attention to detail and limited scope.

You can help perfectionists recognise their own behaviour by giving them feedback and including comments in performance reviews. Some perfectionists aren’t aware of how their behaviour is affecting others or projects. Others can’t quell their own needs. Feedback and reviews can have powerful impact on perfectionists because they are a blot on the persona they want to project.

Show that you care and you may motivate the perfectionist to try changing and remember to be gentle with feedback. Phrase your comments in positive ways so that they don’t dwell on the negatives: remember that perfectionists are already much too hard on themselves.


The writer is an executive coach and HR training and development expert. She can be reached at oksana@academia ofhumanpotential.com or www.academiaofhumanpotential.com. Views expressed are her own and do not reflect the newspaper’s policy


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