Working for the Perfectionist Boss and Managing the Perfectionist Employee

Hokusai Katsushika, "Yoshiwara" (1804). From the Library of Congress prints and photographs division.

Perfectionism is frequently found in the work environment. For many of us, our jobs are the means of survival for ourselves and our loved ones, allowing us to provide shelter, food, health care and occasionally some fun indulgences as well.

It is important for job security to be viewed as a valuable employee– one who does the job well, perhaps even perfectly. But as we have seen all this month in our discussion of perfectionism, while a little perfectionism is good, too much has negative consequences. In the context of employment, some big problems arise with perfectionist bosses and perfectionist employees.

The Perfectionist Boss

The perfectionist boss is one of the most dreaded of bad bosses. The perfectionist boss expects everything to go according to his or her expectations, which may be grossly out of touch with what is reasonable or appropriate for ordinary people. The perfectionist boss tends to micromanage everything, makes decisions at a snail’s pace, is afraid to stand up for the team on controversial decisions, and erodes morale with a constant stream of negativity and criticism.

Why is the boss such a perfectionist? There could be many causes, ranging from genetic predisposition to toxic home environments to an irrational fear of losing one’s job. The boss might also be demonstrating delegated perfectionism–the boss’s boss is a perfectionist so therefore the boss is a perfectionist too.

How can you work with a perfectionist boss? Most of the advice I have read says essentially, “Become a perfectionist.” Sadly, this is probably true in many cases since perfectionists fear change and believe that their way of doing things (and only their way of doing things) is the best. If you find yourself working for a perfectionist, it may be time to start looking for another job.

Since not everyone has the luxury of moving on to another job when a perfectionist is at the helm, what else can you do? There are two options to pursue: 1) managing from below and 2) defensive documentation.

Managing from Below

Managing from below is a key skill that almost everyone needs to learn in any job. Managing from below essentially refers to strategies to influence your boss’ decision making process to try to help the boss correct for bad decisions. Often the only “strategy” you can use is careful marshaling of objective facts. It is a lot like being your own lawyer. When your boss makes a decision you don’t agree with, before you simply agree to the decision, state the reason why you disagree in as friendly and respectful of terms as you can. For example, “I will be happy to do that but it will mean that I have less time for the other project which I understood was more important.”

Don’t be surprised if the response you get from the perfectionist boss is “If you can’t do it perfectly, I will find someone else who can.” or even, “I will just have to do it myself.” The perfectionist boss would rather wear everyone out to the point of exhaustion rather than make a calculated trade-off for less perfection on something in exchange for more perfection on something else. The perfectionist boss struggles greatly with prioritizing and cannot prioritize either his or her own work or the work of the people the boss manages.

Defensive Documentation

It is not an unrealistic fear that a perfectionist boss may become disillusioned with your imperfect work and decide that a more perfect candidate would be a better replacement for you. When you are working for a perfectionist, it is important to document your accomplishments, how you spend your time and praise from others who appreciate your work. All of this documentation will not necessarily save your job but it will help you either in applying to other jobs or having to explain to someone else why you think you are performing at an exemplary level. It can also be a source of maintaining your own self-esteem, reminding yourself of all the great things you accomplished.

Ultimately, when working with a perfectionist boss, you have to hope for one of the following outcomes: 1) the boss has an epiphany and changes the perfectionist behavior once the reality of the demands of the position sink in; 2) the boss suffers a nervous breakdown from overwork and takes a leave of absence; or 3) you find another position. While you can temporarily compensate by adopting more perfectionist qualities in yourself, this is ultimately not a healthy, effective or sustainable solution.

The Perfectionist Employee

Perfectionist employees can be detrimental to an organization as well. Procrastination due to fear of making mistakes, excessive time spent on performing tasks perfectly, and failure to prioritize projects can destroy productivity as well. When the perfectionist employee performs something well, the praise is intoxicating to the employee. When the praise is not there, the employee feels unvalued.

It is much easier to handle the perfectionist employee than the perfectionist boss, however. A perfectionist employee will be motivated to make changes to their behavior by any negative feedback which threatens their job security. The formula for success in working with a perfectionist employee is to be generous with praise (which is a good idea whether your employee is a perfectionist or not) and to assist the employee in setting reasonable priorities based on specific expectations. Also, make sure the workload is structured to allow the employee to exercise their natural perfectionist tendencies on some projects where the effort will be appreciated. For example, “You always do such great work! We have a lot of work to accomplish by the end of this week. I would like you to focus the most on Project X. Project Y and Project Z are less important because _____.”

Once you tell a perfectionist employee that a particular project is not as important, you will lose all credibility if you then change your mind and criticize how the work is done without a good explanation. “It is better to say, for example, “The situation on Project Z has changed. It is now the most important project. Could you revise your work to make the following changes?”

Avoid Becoming the Perfectionist Boss or the Perfectionist Employee

If you see yourself in any of the above examples, you are probably in good company. What are some steps you can take to improve your perfectionism at work? One of the strategies that has worked best for me is to document how long certain tasks take and the steps they involve. This can be a major pain. You don’t have to do it for every task that you do but certainly every big task or a task you are doing for the first time. This helps enormously in terms of evaluating where you are spending too much or not enough time and in budgeting your time and energy.

For example, if you know that a project will take you 18 hours to complete, and you only have two hours a day to focus on that project, you will be less likely to promise it will be completed in just a few days. If someone tells you that it must be done in a few days, you will have to back off on other projects, work overtime or do lower quality work. You need input from your manager on which course to take.

If you are managing people, you should create your own documentation of how long things actually take to get done. Don’t ask your employees to document this for you as they will feel threatened and might be prone to lie to prove their efficiency. Rather, on an informal, observational basis, figure out how long it is taking people to get things done, who is working overtime, etc. It is your job as the manager to make sure people are spending their time effectively and that people are not burning out from overwork.

If you think you might be the perfectionist boss, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  1. You don’t have to be the best at everything to be the boss. Some of your employees could have better skills than you do in certain areas. You need to avoid the competitive perfectionist tendency and take comfort in the fact that you were chosen to be the boss. Being the boss involves more than just being functionally good at something. Don’t sweat it if your employee has to correct you on something.
  2. Setting unrealistic expectations for the work of your team is harmful to you and your employees. No one can keep up with the mental strain of so much perfectionism. People will respect you more if you say, “I would really like to get Project Z done in two weeks but there are a lot of factors there beyond my control. Planning for that deadline might not be realistic.” or “I can get Project Z done in two weeks but I will need to spend some money for extra help or we will have to stop our work on Project X.” If you are unwilling to set these expectations, you will need to plan for employee attrition and even your own eventual job change due to burnout.
  3. Be generous with praise and careful with criticism. If you can’t stop yourself from compulsively correcting everything everyone does for you, at least have a sense of humor about it and encourage your team to have a sense of humor about it too.
  4. Accept that you will make mistakes and so will people who work for you. It is better to manage to allow for some mistakes that you will have to answer for as a boss than to manage to prevent any mistakes. A good boss appropriately prioritizes the areas where mistakes can be tolerated and the areas where they cannot and communicates these priorities. A good boss also remembers the positive more than the negative and has a ready list of why each employee and the team is valuable.

Have you struggled with perfectionism at work? Please share in the comments. Back on Wednesday with Ruly Ruth!