How to Collaborate with a Perfectionist? - HBR

It is key to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism.


Characteristics of healthy perfectionism

  • Striving for high but achievable standards that result in feelings of satisfaction and increased self-esteem

  • Matching your time and energy to tasks that match your strengths and interests

  • Having a sense of what you value and what your priorities are and devoting the lion’s share of your time and attention to these areas

  • Reaping payoffs from your efforts that are greater than your costs

Characteristics of unhealthy perfectionism

  • Repeatedly setting goals for yourself but never achieving them

  • Constantly competing to be the best at everything in order to avoid feeling like a failure

  • Giving in to the feeling that all mistakes are catastrophic

  • Getting stuck in believing that one particular strategy must pay off, instead of trying others

It can be draining to work with a perfectionist. While it’s great to work with colleagues who care about the quality of their work, perfectionists take it a step further. Their unrelenting standards can result in unnecessary stress, conflict, and missed deadlines due to a failure to prioritize the big picture over the details. If you try to remind them that “perfect is the enemy of finished,” they may see you as a corner-cutter. Perfectionism is common enough that we’ll all eventually encounter perfectionists in the workplace.


So how can you collaborate more productively with them? Here are five suggestions, drawn from psychological research into perfectionism and also, anxiety, which is typically what underlies perfectionism.


If you’re a perfectionist yourself, you’ll learn tips here for how you can create smoother, stronger working relationships.


Figure Out Which Type of Perfectionist You’re Dealing With

Out of experience, there are two types of perfectionists. Avoidant perfectionists have trouble beginning tasks. Deadlines trigger their anxiety about doing things perfectly, and therefore, they drag their feet when starting a new project. On the other hand, Obsessive perfectionists tends to struggle to complete tasks.


Both kinds of perfectionists have trouble prioritizing, and struggle to allocate their time according to what’s most important. Both types also share a habit of expanding the scope of projects. But how you deal with these traits may differ according to the type you’re dealing with.


For people who struggle to get started, you can help by clarifying the task and breaking it down into smaller components. For people who have a hard time finishing, you can focus on prioritizing the elements of the task, and reminding them of prior decisions about its scope.


Since perfectionists often have difficulty setting logical limits on tasks themselves, they may find it very helpful to have someone else do this with them. If you have a respectful and trusting relationship with your colleague, limit setting can improve a relationship rather than create tension. This is particularly true when perfectionism stems from anxiety.


Don’t Internalize Unrealistic Expectations

Perfectionists tend to equate time with quality, so you’ll need to be particularly thoughtful and diplomatic in explaining why you don’t want to spend that much time on this project. The goal is to explain the opportunity cost of spending excess time when you could be serving the company in more productive ways. Be specific and detailed about what those “more productive ways” are, and clear and concrete in explaining why those additional efforts won’t be useful.


If this conversation is a difficult one, don’t take it personally. Try to have the mindset that every individual, including you, has their own flaws. Tensions in the workplace are normal. A challenging encounter doesn’t reflect negatively on you or your colleague as people. The consequences of letting yourself get worked up and attaching unnecessary emotional baggage to the situation will be more harmful than productive.


Support Processes that Help the Team Focus on the Big Picture

A defining feature of problematic perfectionism is losing sight of the big picture. While it’s the team leader’s job to develop processes and keep everyone on the team focused on key priorities, there are some things that anyone at any level can do to try and help. During team meetings, you might ask:

  • Is there a simpler way we can achieve our goal?

  • Can we shrink down the amount of time we’re spending?

  • What’s the opportunity cost of spending extra time on this versus another task?

For projects where you’re working with a perfectionist, you can also try creating a basic checklist to help the group stay organized, relieve anxieties surrounding to-dos, and ensure that nothing is being overlooked. Hewing to a clear decision-making process, and documenting what decisions have been made, should also help things move forward.

You can encourage the use of heuristics for making decisions that help everyone in the team to quickly and effectively prioritize, like, “If an opportunity is worth less than $X, we’ll automatically pass it up,” or “If a project ends up taking more than X hours to complete, we’ll let our manager know.”


Set Boundaries

A perfectionist’s unrealistic expectations can unintentionally make their teammates feel like their time is not being valued. Let’s take the example of a hard-driving perfectionist who sends you an excessive number of emails — each one with a different question or suggestion — when he’s feeling overwhelmed. It might be tempting to ignore these emails, or even respond in a curt way, but instead try setting boundaries.


For example, you might choose not to respond to your perfectionist colleague’s evening or weekend emails; or you might decide that you’ll respond to all of their messages once per day, but that’s it. If low priority group emails are being responded to on weekends or late at night, you may need to institute a team policy or guideline about this.

It’s important to recognize that every individual will engage in some self-sabotaging behaviors that, in turn, affect the rest of the team. But by developing boundaries, you will create a culture that encourages personal growth.


Enhance Feelings of Security Through Mutual Influence

Mutual influence is when a teammate allows you to influence their way of thinking and vice versa. It is an important factor that helps any relationship feel more secure. If a perfectionist’s habits irritate you, try compromising. Identify elements of their routine that may be useful to incorporate into your own. If you expect someone else to bend to your way, then you need to show that you’re willing to bend to theirs.

When people feel a sense of relationship security, it’s much easier for them to receive critical feedback. There are several ways to help a perfectionist colleague feel more secure. Show your perfectionist teammates that you think of them highly, and believe in their talent and capabilities. Perfectionists need to know that your general view of them is positive, and that small mistakes, like making a typo, isn’t going to impact your overall confidence in them. When a perfectionist trusts that you will provide feedback without judgment, he or she is able to more easily overcome emotional roadblocks and perform better.


The relationship dynamic will be different between an employee and their boss versus a relationship between two peers. However, for both parties to feel secure, there should be elements of mutual influence, including being open and responsive. Perfectionists have many strengths and can make amazing teammates. Make sure you take advantage of your opportunity to learn from their strengths.


By understanding some of the common habits of perfectionists you can better understand their perspective and struggles. In doing so, you open the door to a healthy relationship in which you can learn from one another and build a more harmonious work environment.


To read the complete HBR articles, please click here and here.

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