A perfectionist manager might be driving down engagement and burning out employees. Here’s how HR can spot them.
When it comes to maths, Jun Gu would probably tell you he’s mediocre at best. At least, that’s what he told one of his classmates while studying Organisational Behaviour and HR Management at The University of Toronto.
So when Gu received top marks in a unit that involved maths, his classmate was a little confused.
“I thought I was mediocre at maths, while my American colleague thought he was really good,” says Gu, who is now an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Macquarie University.
“My classmate asked me, ‘If you think you’re bad at maths, who are you comparing yourself with?’”
Gu shared that many of his friends in his native country of China had won mathematics awards at international events. For Gu, if he wasn’t winning international awards at maths, he was average. By contrast, his classmate figured he was great at maths because he never needed a calculator when counting change.
We all have different standards by which we compare ourselves, explains Gu. These standards are formed early on and are heavily influenced by our parents, siblings and role models, as well as our culture and early experiences at school and work.
However, when these standards become unattainable, leaders (and their employees) might run into trouble. Perfectionism is on the rise – with one global study of 42,000 people over 27 years charting a significant leap in perfectionist tendencies and behaviours.
This means it wouldn’t be surprising to find one or two perfectionists in your leadership ranks. Here’s how to spot a perfectionist manager at work and some ways HR can help them overcome these tendencies.
Killing the joy at work
Gu and his colleagues are researching how perfectionism manifests at work, especially at a management level.
Some examples could include insisting subordinates continually recheck work, relying only on the most capable employees or micromanaging menial tasks. Worst still, they may demoralise employees by not showing them trust, inhibiting learning opportunities or encouraging a culture of burnout.
“This will kill the joy at work,” says Gu. “Perfectionistic leaders create an environment where people are scared to be creative or innovative.
“When you’re holding people to such a high standard, you’ll transfer your anxiety to your direct reports and place unnecessary pressure on them.”
Three kinds of perfectionist managers
Perfectionism can take many forms, but there are two commonalities.
“The first is setting really high standards for yourself and striving to always do better than others,” says Gu.
“The second is intolerance of mistakes. So, if a subordinate is on the verge of making a mistake, you will become nervous and try to micromanage them, or you just take over.”
Throughout their research, Gu and his research team have zeroed in on three kinds of perfectionist managers.
- The self-oriented perfectionist: This is when a person places unforgiving standards on themselves.
A self-oriented perfectionist might think: “It is important to me that I am thoroughly competent in everything I do,” or “If I partly fail, it is as bad as being a complete failure.”
- The socially prescribed perfectionist: This kind of perfectionist manager believes that others expect perfection from them, regardless of whether or not this is accurate.
They might say: “People might think less of me if I make a mistake.”
- The other-oriented perfectionist: This manager may place their unattainable standards on others and evaluate them thoroughly.
They could say things like: “The people who matter to me should never let me down.” or “I cannot be bothered with people who do not strive to better themselves.”
The reality is that perfectionism helps no one. On an individual level, a perfectionist is more prone to stress, burnout and anxiety. And because they are holding themselves and others to illusory standards, they are often dissatisfied.
From a work perspective, perfectionist managers aren’t able to work quickly or be agile, and they struggle to delegate work or see tasks as complete.
“Perfectionism will waste your time and your company’s time. This is because you’re trying to achieve something with no objective standard as to what the perfect state should be,” says Gu.
So how can perfectionist leaders overcome their impossible standards? The first step is to be open to feedback, which can be tough for perfectionists who don’t always realise their limitations and struggle to take on criticism.
Gu and his colleagues found that cultivating mindfulness, celebrating small wins and recalibrating goals are good starting points.
“Perfectionism will waste your time and your company’s time. This is because you’re trying to achieve something with no objective standard as to what the perfect state should be.” – Jun Gu, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Macquarie University
The next step is to seek out role models, coaches or mentors who can help you see past perfect.
“Your subordinates might be too scared or polite to tell you the truth. However, a peer or friend might be able to weigh in and give guidance,” says Gu.
“If your perfectionism has negatively impacted your life, wellbeing and productivity, I recommend you reach out to a peer or mentor who has more experience. Ask them if they’ve experienced these feelings, and get their advice on how they manage them.”
Different routes to success
Ultimately, overcoming perfection requires a mindset shift. This might mean prizing the process over perfection and celebrating little wins along the way.
For example, if an employee makes a mistake, a perfectionist manager could instead emphasise what they’ve learned instead of fixating on the mistake.
“Throughout my career, I’ve spoken with a number of leaders from academia and the corporate world. The most important thing that I’ve learned is that there are many different ways to succeed,” says Gu.
“For perfectionist managers, they may see ‘perfect’ as the only way. But that’s because they haven’t seen other ways.”
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