Imagine this: you are put in charge of a team that is charged with handling a moderately complex matter for a client on an emergency basis. It has to be right and it has to be done in 10 days. You have a great team with people with complementary skill sets and one person who is a great writer and researcher. He is known for his painstaking dedication to accuracy. As the deadline approaches, the writer is drafting and editing the final work product. He is researching to strengthen the analysis, and you begin to worry that while he perfects the final work product the deadline could come and go.
1. Good communication is the key to success.
The managing lawyer has to set expectations early and clearly with the client and the staff about what level of attention to detail is possible within the given constraints of time and money. Plus, as the project moves along he or she should stay in communication with the team as the project progresses and ask the hard questions. Let me share a story about this:
I am a big picture kind of person, so I like to work with detail-oriented people because they keep me honest. I had one investigator that I relied upon heavily because our skills were so complementary. We had done an expedited investigation of what appeared to be a multi-million dollar Ponzi scheme. I had drafted the papers, and we had the approval to file the case, but she wasn’t ready. She couldn’t get the numbers to balance—meaning all of the money wasn’t accounted for. Lack of attention to the details can kill an otherwise great case. So I delayed filing for 1 day while she checked the numbers, then 2 and, finally, on the third day, I asked the question I should have asked on Day 1:
“How far are we off?”
“46 cents,” she replied.
I told her “Just round it down to the nearest dollar, we’re filing tomorrow.”
If I’d asked the right question 2 days earlier, we would have filed on time. On the other hand, this story demonstrates the other important skill a manager has to have: the ability to say we’re done.
2. Sometimes, enough is enough. And, a good manager knows when it’s enough and has to say so.
In the example we started with, the manager should have started by communicating with the client and the team about the time and financial constraints and reached a consensus of what an acceptable final product would look like. During the project the manager should informed about the team’s progress and provide help and support as needed. If the perfectionist team member becomes a bottleneck, the manager should take active steps to get the project moving again.
What if the Perfectionist is the Team Leader? Can a Perfectionist be a good manager?
Let’s put this in a context, Alex is a perfectionist, everything he turns in is done meticulously, he checks and rechecks his work until he is sure that he hasn’t overlooked any detail. Tanya recognizes the quality of his work and wants to give him the opportunity to lead a team on a project, but she wonders if he can manage others since he has never been in that role before.
Alex’s success depends on what kind of perfectionist he is. There are two types of perfectionists: positive and negative or maladaptive. Positive perfectionists take pride in their work, are hardworking, conscientious, optimistic, and strive to do their best and work toward that in a constructive fashion. These are the lawyers who are tough taskmasters but everyone wants to work with them. They have high, but realistic, standards in the quality of the work they do for their clients. They recognize that sometimes mistakes occur but strive to avoid them. They give praise when it is deserved recognizing that in a team environment, team members want to feel good about what they are doing and that they made valuable contributions to an excellent work product. Positive perfectionists set realistic expectations for themselves and others within the constraints of time, budget and resources and work with the team to turn out the best possible product which oftentimes is a stretch for all involved but not an unreasonable one.
If Alex is this kind of perfectionist, he could develop into a good manager. Consider how well does he work in groups? Does he always find fault with his colleagues work? Does his attention to detail cause him to miss deadlines? Can he prioritize? Can he distinguish between important and unimportant? When he works with others, does he delegate appropriately? If the answer to these questions is no, it may not be a good idea to put him in charge.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is the negative perfectionist. Negative perfectionists have unrealistically high standards for themselves and others which can lead to being hyper critical of their own work and the work of others; are extremely detail oriented and can lose sight of the bigger project resulting in missed deadlines; delegate poorly preferring to either do it themselves or to control closely the work of others; and rarely give praise to others because they can easily find fault in anything. Yes, the final work product is excellent but at a cost to the perfectionists and their colleagues. Negative perfectionists are “driven by a fear of failure and concerns about negative judgments by others. It causes stress in the workplace, and it has been found to be a risk factor for anxiety and depression. “
If Alex is a negative perfectionist, and Tanya put him in charge of the project, she can expect to spend a lot of time listening to complaints from his colleagues about the way he is treating them, that nothing is ever good enough for him, that he redoes other’s people’s work, that he is focusing on minute details and missing deadlines, that he micromanages the work of others and that morale on the team is bottoming out or worse. In other words, she is going to spend a lot of time fixing things when she could be spending her time more productively.
What could Tanya do, in a reasonable amount of time, to help Alex control his perfectionist tendencies so that he can work better with others?
If Tanya believes that Alex is driven by a fear of failure, she needs to first start constructively by recognize his strong points, i.e., his attention to detail and the overall quality of his work because as long as his mind is full of fear, he won’t hear anything else she has to say.
Then she should express her support for his advancement wants to see in the organization and she ask if he is open to some suggestions. If he shuts down at this point, he may not be open to changing, and Tanya should accept that and invite him to come speak to her when he’s ready. But, if he seems open to the conversation, Tanya could identify two or, at most, three behaviors that she thinks are limiting his advancement potential. Then, she can invite him to develop a strategy to work on these behaviors or suggest that he get a coach who can help him develop and execute such a strategy.
The reality is that the negative perfectionist is unlikely to change based on one conversation. Some negative perfectionists suffer from depression and anxiety and should consider therapy. Others may respond to supervisor coaching or mentoring. Coaching is forward looking and action oriented. A trained coach will partner with Alex in a confidential relationship focused on helping him change in a positive way.
If you are a perfectionist and want to control the limiting behaviors that your perfectionism brings or if you supervise a perfectionist and want to be coached on how to manage your perfectionist, click the button below to schedule a free introductory call to see if coaching could help you or your subordinate.