#askIMPACT: The Perfectionist

  • Raquel, Lawrence’s boss, knows that everything Lawrence does is completed with utmost diligence; it is rare anything is missed and the quality of the work is top-notch.
  • Lawrence is seen as a hard worker. Sure, sometimes Lawrence and his team can be found working late into the night, but Raquel likes having Lawrence on the team and is always pleased to take his work to leadership, knowing the work will make her and the entire team look good.
  • Lately, though, Raquel is seeing the cracks starting to show. Lawrence looks harried and visibly loses patience with staff in the office. He raises his voice, shows his frustration, and borders on berating people.
  • Slowly, staff start to leave Lawrence’s team. HR has now approached Raquel as exit interviews have indicated that Lawrence is “tough on staff”.
  • Raquel is concerned about Lawrence. She feels he looks stressed and she’s worried about him burning out. At the same time, Lawrence approaches Raquel for a promotion. Someone he views as ‘not as good as him’ was recently promoted and Lawrence feels passed over and not appropriately recognized. What should Raquel do?

How to coach a perfectionist

Perfectionism is the pursuit of unrelenting standards. Perfectionists judge their self-worth largely on their ability to strive for and achieve these standards.

Here’s the obvious: perfection can never actually be achieved, yet many people still try. As coaches, we see perfectionists as being overly focused on outcomes and tasks. Although they want to please, they are actually less focused on relationships than you might think. Often, perfectionists feel the need to control their outputs in an attempt to ensure perfection. This focus on control gives the perfectionist a sense of confidence yet alienates them from others. The fallout can be quite significant. People who are subject to a perfectionist as a boss might feel micro-managed and not trusted. There is often big turnover in groups run by a perfectionist. People who work with a perfectionist colleague or client may not feel as warm to that person. There is often a sense of not knowing the “real person”. People around the perfectionist recognize a frailty and a lack of confidence even though the perfectionist is trying to do everything in their power to be in control.

Contrary to the belief of a perfectionist, perfection is unsustainable. At some point, everything becomes too big and too complex to control it completely. Very smart and hardworking people can maintain a high level of control for quite a long time, but not forever.

What is a boss or coach to do?

Each situation is different but here are some top tips from the coaches at Impact:

Help the perfectionist recognize the problem and notice its source – It is not helpful to point out the individual’s confidence issues. Ask them questions like, “I have noticed you are working late quite a bit and I am concerned. You appear stressed at times. What is causing that?” What you want them to do is tell you how they are trying to control things. Afterwards, you can ask, “What do you think is driving that need to have perfect outcomes/that need to control?” If you keep asking questions, you may get to a point in the conversation where the perfectionist will say something like “I am afraid I will look bad” or “I am concerned that people won’t take me seriously as a professional”. It is at this stage that you can help the individual attack those flawed assumptions and see their limitations. Gently, help them see the bigger picture and the impact of their behaviour.

Move the perfectionist to new actions and assumptions – Ask the perfectionist to try an experiment. On their next low-risk assignment or task, ask them to try operating at 80% of their ability. Once they do that, ask them how it felt. You are likely to hear that they weren’t happy but if you ask the right questions, you should also hear that the sky didn’t fall and that the work product was well received, and most importantly, that people didn’t notice a difference. In addition, the perfectionist might also report that they went home at a reasonable time (as did their staff) and that felt pretty good. Remember that one change won’t form a pattern, so continue supporting them with more experiments such as this one to help them form new habits.

Shift their perspective from task to leadership – Perfectionists are often very task-oriented. Set an objective to be a great leader. Get them focused on leveraging their team and delegating, and set high standards for them to aim for. As a coach, I often talk about “the next stage for great leadership”. For them to be a great leader, they need to let go. Much of leadership literature focuses around individuals who are suck in their careers because of an inability to delegate. Show the perfectionist the feedback from staff. They will want to fix that. Give them articles to read about team leadership and delegation. Get them focused on ‘healthy perfectionism’. The goal isn’t for them to lose their high standards, but to replace flawed assumptions and unproductive behaviours.

Help the perfectionist get comfortable with making mistakes – It’s inevitable – mistakes will happen. Help the individual use these opportunities as relationship building moments, instead of focusing on them as chances for others to doubt their abilities. Some of the best relationships are developed when a person reaches out to admit fault and expresses vulnerability. As the perfectionist learns to let go and delegates more, mistakes will likely happen. Don’t let them use these mistakes as a reason to revert back. Help them use these opportunities to build better relationships with their staff by having them coach their staff through the issues.

Provide lots of positive reinforcement – Perfectionism usually stems from low self-confidence. People with low self-confidence often try to control their environment and can be quite hard on themselves and others. To avoid feeling badly, they try to make things perfect. The focus on control in an uncontrollable world creates a downward spiral for the individual’s self-confidence. It’s important to remember to provide lots of positive reinforcement because perfectionists can be sensitive. At first glance, it may appear that they don’t need much support but it is actually the opposite.

The main takeaway when working with a perfectionist is to talk with them. They are often so consumed with being perfect that they do not see how their behaviour is affecting others. Perfectionists can be quite rewarding to coach; they work hard and they want to improve to be the best version of themselves.

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