As a recovering perfectionist (I’ll keep trying until I’ve perfected it), I can honestly say I’ve been on both sides of this experience. As the employee, I’ve felt the dejection when something I’ve worked hard at gets the ‘red pen treatment’, i.e. nothing but fault-finding and criticism; ‘must try harder’. Yet as a manager, I’ve also felt the frustration at having to explain something again – and again. And maybe again.
As “How to manage upwards’ is a popular workshop in the menu of topics I deliver, it seems that perfectionist bosses are still very much a fact of working life.
First of all, take a reality check. Is your boss a perfectionist with everyone, including him or herself? If so, you need first to take a deep breath and know that the person they are hardest on is the one they see in the mirror each morning. They really, really, really want to get things right. And that includes how they manage you, as well as how you perform. Of course you have a choice: you can find another boss – or you can decide that you are going to make this important professional relationship work for both of you. The second option requires you to adjust your behaviour to get your boss on your side.
What can you do?
- Check how often they want to be given updates. It may be more often than you imagined, in minute detail; or less often, with all the information chunked together. If they want regular catch-ups, put them in your calendar and set a reminder so you’re good and ready. When you spot that deadlines or quality are slipping, give them fair warning and seek their advice. Ask ‘what would you do?’ and they will tell you.
- Negotiate with them constructively. If you’re flat-out, resist the urge to respond to your manager’s demands with a long, groaning list of everything else you have to do. Instead, try asking ‘does X take priority over Y? or ‘do we need to push something back?’ They will of course expect everything, now and perfectly, but asking for their input rather than just resisting will help them see that everything / now / perfect isn’t possible.
- Ask yourself if they have a point. Some perfectionist bosses can burn out their team by expecting them to constantly ‘go the extra mile’ and ‘give 110 per cent’. You may need to be assertive and have a conversation with them about the impact of their demands on you. But first, a word of caution: what if it’s just you who gets this treatment? What if your perfectionist boss is pretty pleased with your colleagues, but less impressed with you? Watch out. They just might have a point. Don’t give them shoddy work or half the job. Ask questions to clarify upfront what’s expected and whenever practical, get them to give you an example (examples rock: so helpful yet so underused). Show you’re learning from mistakes. When they tell you that something is wrong, ask them to show you the steps to get it right.
- Help them to give you clear feedback. Make it clear that you really want to get this right – and to do that you need their feedback. If necessary point out that “It’s just not good enough” isn’t… good enough, as you still don’t know what you need to do to get good. What action do you need to take? What do they suggest you stop and start doing to hit the required standard?
- Agree systems and processes. Perfectionists love a checklist, so if you can draft one to discuss with your picky manager, ask for their input (they’ll most likely be pleased). Make sure you use the checklist and be assertive if your boss starts asking for things that aren’t in the checklist; ask them if it now needs to be updated.
Images: @everett225 / depositphotos