Is perfectionism a strength or weakness? In interviews, I hear many candidates use it as a weakness but subtly intend it as a strength. The reality is, someone who is on the far end of the perfectionism spectrum can find it debilitating, even causing mental health issues, so care must be taken with any perfectionist in the team.
There are important qualities that perfectionists possess that should be to recognised. They’re committed to their work, they can raise the standards of those in the team, and they care. Their care for what they do is a powerful characteristic.
That being said, a perfectionist is someone who “refuses to accept any standard short of perfection“. They are someone who cares deeply about their output and what other people think of them. And are consumed with every detail which not only affects their output and possibly delays the team’s progress but, more seriously, puts immense strain on their own health.
Whereas, at the other end of the spectrum, a ‘non-perfectionist’ would be someone who has fewer expectations of themselves or of those around them.
I would always choose someone who cares about what they do over others. People who care about what they do stand out to me.
So, team leads and managers need awareness of the traits of a perfectionist and have the ability to work with them individually and along with the team.
Here are some thoughts to help working with a perfectionist:
- Think before giving tasks – be considerate in what tasks you give. If something needs to be done quickly it may not be suitable, they may prefer work where attention to detail is needed.
- Explain the bigger picture – help them understand the bigger picture of their work. How does it fit into the larger project/vision? This gives perspective and gives an understanding of what we need to learn as we progress.
- Time-box work – this gives opportunities to stop and discuss if we should continue or change direction based on progress and learnings.
Be clear with expectations – what are the ‘must haves’? What’s essential before we can get feedback? What areas can wait until we’re sure on the way forward?
- Making decisions – encourage them to be bold with making decisions. Let them know they are empowered with the decision. Create check-ins on the decisions to discuss if the path is still correct. If the output of the decisions can’t be checked for months, look to better ones.
- Choose words carefully – the language we use in interactions can send the wrong signals. Don’t ask for something to be ‘perfect’ or say “this must have no bugs”. This applies in team interaction too where stronger voices often get more air time.
- Let them get feedback – encourage and support them to get feedback from teams/clients as they progress. This puts initiative on them to discover what is enough and what good looks like.
- Provide structure – having processes in place can help increase their confidence. It will depend on their field of work. For engineers, it could be various automation tests and feedback from other teams/stakeholders. Using feature flags also helps deploy code into production with minimal impact.
- Taking risks – find ways they can be more comfortable taking risks. This can be a big challenge. Support them through the early ones. Once they work completed with some risks and things went ok, it creates confidence and takes steps toward a new mindset.
- Listen to them – hear their concerns and be empathetic as you work together on a way forward.
- Praise them – particularly when they’ve completed a task quicker than they would have normally. Ensure they’re encouraged when making choices they’re not comfortable with.
Having someone in your team that cares deeply about their work is a strength. Building a good relationship with each person is important so the trust is there to have meaningful conversations. However, throughout any conversations, a perfectionist should not feel under no pressure to do things a different way. They may not want to change so there has to be understanding from the leader that some changes may need to be approached slowly and with care.
A leader’s responsibility is to create physiological safe teams that can have open discussions. This reduces the risk of the negative traits of perfectionists spiralling into more serious health issues.