Management: How Workplace Culture Gets Undermined By ‘Perfectionists’

It would seem to be a high-class management challenge: Employees who insist on perfection.

Having someone on the team who is focused on making sure everything is being done right may seem constructive, but research shows there can be significant negative consequences to working with such a personality.

Dr. Alan A. Cavaiola, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychological Counseling at Monmouth University, tackled the challenge that sits at the intersection of business management and psychology in a piece titled “Controlling Perfectionists in the Workplace.”

Indeed, understanding the psychology matters. Writes Dr. Cavaiola: “The controlling perfectionist is similar to what psychologists or psychiatrists would refer to as Obsessive CompulsivePersonality Disorder (OCPD).  (not be confused with OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which is characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive rituals). Instead, an individual with OCPD is often preoccupied with details, lists, rules, order, organization and schedules often so much so, that he or she loses the major point of what they’re trying to accomplish. This rigid adherence to perfectionistic standards often interferes with their ability to complete tasks.”

Harvard Business Review outlined ways to address the perfectionist in the workplace:

Set Boundaries

Unrealistic expectations can derail a work relationship. Perfectionists often are intrusive on other people’s time, asking for additional work, sending excessive emails, or monopolizing group time. Setting boundaries allows you to set the expectations and norms of your work, whether that’s avoiding responding to after-hours emails or setting clear expectations of how much time you can allow for a project.

Understand the Types

Perfectionists come in two basic types. The avoidant perfectionist has problems with starting tasks, anxious about their ability to work perfectly and thus avoiding the start until the last minute. The obsessive perfectionist has to struggle to complete work tasks, always wanting to take one more look, revise one more sentence, or provide one extra option.

For avoidant types, it’s a good idea to clarify the work and dissecting it into smaller, workable segments. For obsessive types, it’s best to clearly define the scope of work being done and prioritizing what needs to be done as well as the deadlines.

A perfectionist can often derail projects and get lost in the details.

Focus on Big Picture

Perfectionists often get bogged down in the details, making it hard to look at the big picture. Leaders and coworkers can keep everyone focused by asking regularly to assess work processes. Is the way work is being done the most effective or most efficient strategy? What is the cost for spending the time we are on this work?

Don’t Internalize

Perfectionists often become frustrated with their bosses, workers, and coworkers, with unrealistic expectations about the scope and the time being devoted to the business strategy. It’s important for you to not internalize these moments. There can often be a feeling of defensiveness by many. Staying coolheaded and striving to find common ground and a way to find more efficient solutions is the best approach.

Practice Mutual Influence

Mutual influence is the notion that coworkers can reciprocally shape their approach and way of thinking. Consider if there are aspects of the perfectionist’s approach that are beneficial. Try to adopt those ideas or practices and make it clear you are doing so. Demonstrating a willingness to move closer to their way of operating will demonstrate support and validate their approach … and just may make it easier for you to influence them to change.

Be Honest

As a supervisor or colleague, it’s important to show business leadership by being candid about how the perfectionist’s behaviors’ impact on the work. Helping your colleague see the challenges and difficulties that the approach is causing can be a powerful force for change. You also need to be empathetic and understand that many perfectionist traits are ingrained and long honed.

With the right understanding and logical approach, working with a perfectionist need not be an unsolvable issue.

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