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7 Tips To Deal With Perfectionists

December 06, 2021, 4-min. read
How to deal with perfectionists

There are situations and tasks which perfectionists seemed to have been born for. Perfectionists can sometimes be an absolute blessing for a team. No one can think things through to such detail, carefully check each aspect of an issue, or deliver work with more precision than they can. Do you want to make sure that everything will be correct and there will be no complaints? Entrust the task to a perfectionist.

But let’s face it, there are situations in which perfectionists can get on our nerves. Is it necessary to spend several weeks on a simple task? Are there bigger priorities than making sure something is 150% quality? Are there other tasks that they need to manage on time? That no one other than themselves could possibly recognize and appreciate the level of perfection at which they operate and that you need their work done by tomorrow? Try explaining all this to them without raising your voice 😉

And since our goal is not to push perfectionists out of our team or make them frustrated, we have a few pieces of advice for you that will help you deal with them.

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1 | Play the devil’s advocate

Perfectionism means striving for perfection. A perfectionist will not rest until things are flawless. If we don’t give them the space they needs to achieve this, they will become tense, convinced that this will lead to some negative consequences, that something terrible will happen. It’s a feeling that doesn’t necessarily have to have a rational basis. What you can do is discuss potential risks with them. Play the devil’s advocate. Try to identify the worst that could happen if something (them) wasn’t perfect and what is the likelihood that it will happen. And don’t be afraid to test it out together as well. We are less afraid of things we know or understand; we might even completely stop being afraid.

2 | Separate the wheat from the chaff

Perfectionists typically dedicate the same level of focus for everything, for every single detail. Help them gain perspective, help them free themselves from unimportant things so they can focus on the important ones. Define priorities, explain why they are priorities. Help them sort tasks and topics and categorize them. Direct them away from thinking WHAT (WHAT ALL do I need to do) to WHY.

3 |  State your expectations

One of the things that lead to perfectionism is the wish to be accepted: “If I am perfect, others will be satisfied with me and will like me”. Perfectionists therefore presume that the best way to gain appreciation and meet expectations is to deliver perfect quality every time. If you have different expectations, state them and discuss them. Define specific and measurable performance criteria. And give sufficient attention to criteria which are not related to quality to make sure that perfectionists understand them and truly accept them.

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4 | Set deadlines

Count on the fact that time means nothing to a perfectionist. If something isn’t perfect, they keep working on it no matter what time it is or what day of the week it is. Time is secondary to them, inconsequential. They don’t care about the when, they care about the how. So if you need something on time, by a specific deadline, you need to state this to the perfectionist clearly. And ideally, create a timeline together so that you can be sure they can manage all the necessary steps within the time limit. It’s also important to set partial milestones and then check on their progress and evaluate it together as you go along. If you only assign a final deadline, there’s a bigger risk that the perfectionist won’t make it by then. Ideally, do a quick daily progress check together.

5 | Define quality standards together

Everything we do can be done better. More perfectly. Nevertheless, at a certain level of quality, making something more perfect won’t bring any added value or benefit anymore. For one, no one will be able to tell the difference and appreciate it; also, we often need things within a certain time frame. And getting them in a flawless condition but late is useless. That’s why you and the perfectionist should define together what level of quality is required and desired and what level is pointless to aim for.

6 | Build certainty and calm

Keep in mind that you will need to provide the perfectionist with a different, alternative goal for their satisfaction and a sense of job well done. So don’t forget to praise them, appreciate them, give them positive feedback about sticking to the plan, deadline, and their ability to stick to the priorities. And once in a while, find a task for them in which they can truly let loose their perfectionism and which no one else could deal with as well as they can.

Don’t forget to praise them, appreciate them, give them positive feedback about sticking to the plan...

7 | Praise them for mistakes 

This might sound like an exaggeration. But when it comes to perfectionists, praising them for the courage to make a mistake might actually work. They are terrified of mistakes. They’ll do anything they can to avoid making them. Therefore, your mission is to teach the perfectionists to like mistakes. To learn how to see them as something positive, as an opportunity to learn and make progress. As something that might move them forward and develop much more than if they replicate safe and tried-and-true methods. Maybe it won’t go very quickly or smoothly, but don’t give up. Try to be an example to them, admit to your own mistakes and show them how they’d helped you personally. If you manage this, you will one day realize that for a while now, you haven’t been working with an unbearable perfectionist but with a great colleague whose contributions are invaluable to all your projects.
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