How to manage a perfectionist boss

March 2, 2018

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 frustrating as it might be, it seems that perfectionist bosses are still very much a fact of working life.

So how can you manage them?

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.


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.

About the author

Dawn SillettDawn Sillett has been designing and delivering training workshops and executive coaching for over 15 years.


Author of: The Feedback Book

THE FEEDBACK BOOKMaintaining performance today is no longer simply about having an annual appraisal and telling employees “you must try harder”. Research demonstrates that regular discussions about performance and providing feedback to the people you manage is a more effective way to motivate them and keep them on track. Distilled into this single, handy-sized volume are 50 tips, advice and techniques to help any manager become quickly skilled at regularly discussing performance, setting goals and objectives and providing the necessary feedback to ensure individuals and teams thrive in the company. Structured into five key parts, each of the 50 concise chapters also contains a practical exercise to help the reader understand and implement the concepts and ideas of this book.

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