Dealing with a perfectionist manager


Dealing with a perfectionist manager

“When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun and fear is that annoying backseat driver.”
– Brené Brown

Many of my clients are busy, high-performing professionals, working in high responsibility roles. So, I’m often asked about how best to interact and deal with perfectionist managers. Here’s a selection of common questions and my tried and tested advice on this topic: 

“The pressure of trying to get EVERYTHING perfect stresses me out, to a point where I’m only working to meet my manager’s expectations…” 

It can be draining to work for a perfectionist as their unrealistic expectations can make you feel that your time and input is not valued unless it meets their exact request and expectations.  However, their perfectionism will mean that they are not good at delegating to others as they will have anxiety about doing things perfectly and therefore struggle to start or finish tasks for fear of getting them wrong.  Do not let their perfectionism, that can result in self-sabotage for them and the team, stress you.  To counter this, you need to set your own boundaries.  For example, if they email you at out-of-office times you may choose to not respond until you are back in the office unless it is truly urgent.  When given a timeframe for a task, suggest a more realistic one, stressing that this will enhance the outcome of the task. As perfectionists struggle to set realistic limits on tasks themselves they can value this support when it comes from a teammate who is firm but kind.  Also get their buy-in by asking them to prioritise all the tasks they have set you. If they are unwilling or unable to do this, then set your own goals and an achievable workload. At least this way you will end the day with a sense of personal satisfaction for a job well done.
“I know that sometimes my manager’s criticism comes from a good intention, but being criticised on a daily basis over trivial things is a little too much…”

Sadly, your perfectionist manager has so much criticism for themselves (and see this as essential to galvanise themselves to push on and maintain high standards) that they won’t realise just how much their comments hurt you.  Take control of making it less frequent and trivial by responding in a new way.  You can try by agreeing with the criticism that is coming your way and then turning it back to them. So instead of defending yourself or what you did, simply agree and then ask your manager what specifically they would like you to do differently?  In effect, ask them to mentor you.  If you absolutely feel that you were in the right then stick to your guns, state as dispassionately as possible what you did/why you did it and stress how this approach was for the benefit of the team and the end result (as they may have lost sight of the bigger picture or the need for team harmony).  If possible, and if it will not undermine your manager or their position, seek support and mentoring from others in the organisation: perhaps suggest a ‘buddy’ or ‘cross departmental’ mentoring scheme?
“I want to have an effective dialogue with my manager, but she gets very defensive when getting feedback…”

This defensive behaviour is because she is afraid of getting it wrong or being seen to be less than competent or in charge.  Also, when perfectionists hear from others how they feel they tend to feel resentful that they are wasting their time listening to such things or even hear it as an attack on them. View your feedback as mini-experiments into what will resonate with them and what will not.  You can’t change them but you can teach them to treat you better and to be more trusting and open towards your feedback, suggestions and dialogue.  
To do this, take a deep breath and talk to them.  Stick to the facts.  Controlling perfectionists live in a world of facts so when you make your points, be precise and as clear and dispassionate as you can be.  If it helps, write up your points in a short, concise document (say a one page summary) and where possible, without looking like you are scoring points, also offer feedback about you/your activities from others, or highlight key milestones you have achieved as she will then see that you too work hard and also are valued by others.  You are teaching her to value you and relate to you in a new way.
Again, start where they are and if you can agree with them or thank them for their feedback it will help and make them more open to what else you have to say.  If you have to, end the conversation after making your case and ask that she reflect on your points/look over your report.  This can diffuse the pavlovian need a perfectionist will have to be seen to be in charge and allow them the opportunity to consider, in a more objective way, all the points you have made.  

“My manager would set unrealistic goals that I don’t feel confident in, but I don’t know how I should approach telling her…”

Perfectionists tend not to see the bigger picture as they get caught up on the details and get caught up on what is urgent and pressing rather than what is really important.  They can be preoccupied with lists, details, rules and order and you will end up on the other end of this behaviour. They have lost sight of the major point of what you are all trying to achieve so again you need to set your own limits and convey them clearly to your manager, stressing that you are seeing the bigger picture and believe that shifting the goal in a certain way will lead to a better result for all.  As a perfectionist, she will invariably work extraordinary long hours in order to ‘get it right’ and not value her own time so will not value yours.  Start with small steps which set some boundaries for you such as saying: “As I know my current workload well plus my home commitments I realistically believe that by setting a new date of X we will achieve a more thorough and well considered outcome for this”. Then add a small positive step suggestion that will give them confidence that it can work, such as: “And I suggest that we clear tomorrow afternoon to scope out the project frame that I have already started to research by asking X to produce a list of last year’s results” (or similar).  
“I’m scared to make small mistakes because my manager doesn’t tolerate any mistakes…”

A perfectionist is so afraid of failure that the main mantra in their head will already be: “if you want a job doing properly, do it yourself”. However, they forget that they strive for impossible goals whereas pursuers of excellence meet high standards that are within reach. Remember that perfectionists remember mistakes but pursuers of excellence correct mistakes and learn from them.  
The stress that perfectionists put themselves under to ‘get it right’ can lead to procrastination (for fear of ‘getting it wrong’) which means that projects are delayed, mistakes made while trying to make up for lost time and the bigger picture lost sight of.  Knowing this, you can make this less personal.  Clearly in a job that requires extreme precision such as law or medicine there is what is called ‘socially prescribed perfectionism’ to get it right.  People in these and similar professions experience more than average levels of depression, self-harm and suicide as they become overwhelmed by the standards imposed on them and their self-set goals.  Be mindful of this and keep in mind that perfectionism is not the end goal for each task and a few minor slip-ups will not ruin the progress towards the overreaching goal or project success unless you let it.  This means that you have to stop your negative self-talk away from “I’m scared to make a mistake” to “Today I will do my best, be mindful of what will make the project a success and be focused and calm”.  If this means you have to take a walk at lunchtime away from the office or even go to the toilet and deep breathe for five minutes, then do this. Also, when mistakes are made, be the one to voice what you or the team has learned from it.  Or come up with a strategy for it not happening again. This will give your manager reassurance and a new way of viewing mistakes as outcomes rather than the be all and end all of the project.