How to Harness the Commitment to Excellence
Cassandra is exceptionally bright and talented. She's excellent with detail-oriented work, and she has incredibly high standards.
However, she spends too much of her time focusing on details that are not relevant to a project's goal. She struggles to delegate even minor tasks, and she rewrites her work so often that she misses deadlines.
The problem is that she's too much of a perfectionist.
If you have a perfectionist on your team, then this story might sound familiar. Perfectionists often produce excellent work, but their excessive attention to detail and frequent reworking of projects can cause a lot of problems within a team.
So, what can you do to harness the potential of perfectionists, while minimizing the downsides of their perfectionism? In this article, we'll look at several strategies that you can use.
What Is a Perfectionist?
The term "perfectionist" is attributed to someone who pursues flawless work and sets unrealistically high standards and goals for themselves. Perfectionists tend to be very critical of the work that they do – even when it's done well.
A small amount of positive – or "adaptive" – perfectionism, can be a good thing. Adaptive perfectionists have high standards, work with optimism and pleasure, and consistently try to improve their knowledge and skills. But, crucially, they know when to stop work and "ship" the finished product.
The negative form of this trait is called "maladaptive perfectionism." Maladaptive perfectionists are never completely satisfied with the work that they do. They're often unhappy or anxious, and they're obsessed with producing perfect work, even when it takes too long to deliver.
It's usually easy to identify team members who are maladaptive perfectionists. If someone's obsession with being "perfect" starts to affect their or their team's performance negatively, then their perfectionism is likely maladaptive.
See our article, Perfectionism, for more about the different types of perfectionists.
Damaging Effects of Maladaptive Perfectionism
One of the most damaging effects of maladaptive perfectionism is its impact on health and well-being. Numerous studies have linked it to procrastination, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, general anxiety, severe stress, low self-esteem, and even suicide.
Maladaptive perfectionism can also negatively affect the morale and effectiveness of a team. Maladaptive perfectionists often find it difficult to meet deadlines, delegate work, and accept constructive criticism. They'll often micromanage teammates when they do succeed in delegating a task, and they can be less productive than others, simply because they spend so much time checking and rechecking their work.
Research in 2020 into what constituted a "perfect colleague" concluded, "that perfectionist demands among team members may threaten a positive team climate." Adding that, "If employees could choose the “perfect” colleague, this person would probably not be a perfectionist but rather someone with realistic expectations for themselves and the team.” 
While all these effects are bad, it's important to realize that maladaptive perfectionists mean well. They're committed to their work, as well as to the organization's success. If they didn't care about what they were doing, or who they were doing it for, they wouldn't waste their time on it!
Also, keep in mind that, sometimes, a job or task needs to be perfect. For instance, when you're sending work out to clients, rolling out a new product, or doing jobs where health and safety – or large amounts of money – are at stake. Perfectionists can be assets in these situations, so it's important to find a good balance. Above all, it’s the team’s processes that need to be perfect, not individual people.
Maladaptive perfectionism can cause or contribute to a wide range of health problems. You should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if you have any related concerns over your health, or if you are experiencing significant or persistent unhappiness.
Perfectionists and Self-Awareness
Maladaptive perfectionists often don't realize how their behavior affects others. This includes underestimating the importance of the deadlines that they miss, as well as not realizing how much they're upsetting their co-workers. This is why it's important to help your perfectionists develop their self-awareness.
Start by having an honest conversation with them, to find out if they're aware of their behavior. Next, communicate how these maladaptive perfectionist tendencies are not only limiting their performance, but that of other people as well. Be specific about what you've noticed.
Be sensitive when you address this issue. Remember, your perfectionist team members care a great deal about the quality of their work. Make sure that you express your gratitude for all that they've done. Point out times when their perfectionism was an asset (for instance, they might have spotted an important detail or a mistake that you missed).
You can help maladaptive perfectionists to develop self-awareness by putting them into new situations. Often, a new experience or challenge forces people to be more self-aware; they might also learn something new about themselves.
When you notice that a perfectionist team member is too focused on an unimportant detail or process, commend their focus and determination, but stress that it's time to move on. If they're stuck on doing something in a specific way, encourage them to come up with an alternative solution. Remind them of the most important goals of the task or project.
If you’re managing someone with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, they may have certain inflexible behaviors or beliefs – and a complex understanding of how these appear to others. See our article on this subject for specific information and advice.
Deadlines and Costs of Maladaptive Perfectionism
Maladaptive perfectionists often struggle to sign off on a project, regardless of whether they miss a deadline or run over budget. Missed deadlines can cause the team embarrassment, can result in a loss of reputation, and delay important projects or undermine their business case.
If you notice that a maladaptive perfectionist team member is missing deadlines, or is running over budget, help them to understand the cost implications of their actions. Encourage them to use Action Plans so that they can organize their workload, and help them to schedule their time effectively to avoid missing deadlines.
Perfectionists and Delegation
Maladaptive perfectionists often find it difficult to delegate tasks, even when they're snowed under with work.
Start by explaining how successful delegation will help them to work more productively, and help the team to move forward. Suggest tasks that they might be able to delegate, and the team members who you think are best suited for each task.
Even when a maladaptive perfectionist succeeds in delegating a task, there's a good chance that they'll micromanage. Help them avoid micromanagement by communicating how important it is that they give other people the chance to learn and grow.
Give Perfectionists the Right Roles
Maladaptive perfectionists can be unsuccessful when they're put in charge of large projects, or when they're in a varied role. This is not because of a lack of skill or ability. It's because their attention to detail works against them.
Tasks that perfectionists can struggle with include those with a lot of different priorities, or those that depend on the involvement of several other team members.
Instead, make sure that they're in a role that plays to their strengths. This is any role that has a limited scope, and is particularly detail-focused. While they might have to change jobs within the organization, moving into a role that depends on attention to detail will likely mean that they're happier and more productive.
You can help them in their current role by assigning deadlines to every task, and by being firm about what will happen if they miss the deadline. You can also team them up with less detail-oriented colleagues – this kind of partnership will force them to spend less time on unimportant details, and will encourage them to let go of work that isn't triple-checked.
Provide Constructive Feedback
No matter how much positive feedback you start with, your maladaptive perfectionists will likely focus only on the negative. To manage this tendency, ask how you can best give them feedback, and listen to what they have to say.
Help them to handle criticism by emphasizing that feedback isn't about them personally; the best feedback is intended to support them to grow and develop professionally. Encourage them to ask questions if anything you say isn't clear, and paraphrase what you've said before you finish speaking.
Perfectionists and the Fear of Failure
Maladaptive perfectionists often have a fear of failure. This means that they may avoid new challenges unless they're sure that they can complete them successfully.
Encourage your perfectionists to confront this fear. Let them know that mistakes – and even failure – can be an important part of learning and growth. If they never take a risk and learn from their mistakes, they'll never reach their full potential, either personally or professionally.
You should also teach them how to think positively. Positive thinking, and the visualization of positive outcomes, can help them to overcome their fear of failure.
Maladaptive perfectionists pursue unrealistically high standards in their work. They are often very self-critical, and are rarely satisfied with a finished task. More importantly, they may miss deadlines, fail to delegate, and upset the people they work with.
Numerous studies have linked perfectionism to procrastination, and to a range of mental and physical health problems. So make sure that anyone who is suffering because of their perfectionism gets the appropriate advice and support.
If you have perfectionists on your team, harness their potential by helping them develop self-awareness. Ensure that they're in the right role, provide careful feedback, and help them to learn from their mistakes.
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