Navigating Personalities in the Workplace: The Perfectionist

Business Advisor on people leadership

Foreword: This blog is part of a series A Leader’s Handbook: Navigating People in the Workplace. The aim of the series to explore the core needs and behaviors of some different personalities in the workforce and provide actionable leadership pointers to growing individuals into the best version of themselves. Much of the content is derived from the Enneagram, and placed into everyday language that can be understood and applied by managers and leaders with no prior knowledge of enneagram literature.


We’ve all had stickler bosses (or co-workers who act like a boss) who have had an uncanny knack for fault finding.

Whether they fixate on bad grammar, a typo or not appreciative of your hard work, the most annoying part is not that the accusations are wrong, but that they always find fault (no matter how small) that makes you grind your teeth.

And when they do find it, you can guarantee there will be a 10-minute ‘conversation’ about it.

Perfectionists can be hard work. However, often there is much to be gained from understanding how perfectionists think – not just to survive the experience of working with them, but to realign your style of communication to develop an enjoyable professional relationship.


So do you work for a perfectionist?

Making some board-sweeping generalizations about perfectionists, here are some clues that indicate you work with a perfectionist. Consider if some of these apply to your relationship:

  • Often.
  • They see the world in black and white.
  • Being right is paramount, they hate being wrong and usually always are defensive in conflict.
  • They have high expectations of everyone, and you always secretly feel like you’re disappointing them.
  • They have high expectations of themselves, perhaps because of a personal code, established values (even if those values are really skewed and you feel like they can be blind to their own faults).
  • They work really hard compared with most.
  • They are improvement-orientated.1
  • They like to instruct and critique. Often you feel like a naughty schoolchild when they do this.
  • They are usually blunt in their opinions and demands, often insensitive and cab be opinionated.
  • They could win awards in micro-managing.
  • They love to take on responsibility and are unusually burdened by a sense of failure when things go wrong on their watch.
  • They ultimately believe that “if you want the job done right, do it yourself”.
  • Anger is frequent but always controlled. This results in an often “irritated” demeanor, never fully expressing actual anger.
  • They are often stubborn, non-adaptive and resist other points of view. New ideas often get shot down.


Do some points agree with your observations of your perfectionist?

Understanding the perfectionist/idealist

Many of these traits are reflected around the commitment to “doing right” which can turn into being right (in their own eyes). That can sound arrogant, but often it’s motivated by integrity rather than superiority.

Consider how these traits can also be wonderful strengths if the frictional aspects of their behavior could be mitigated. They are idealists, with a passion for truth that can make them fantastic in professions as teachers, journalists, lawyers and detectives. But the world is not perfect, and thus they often end up at odds with imperfect people in an imperfect world. This friction ends in disappointment and disillusionment for the idealist.

Some of these positive qualities make such individuals rise in organizations. Their work ethic and capacity for responsibility makes them prime promotional material, and soon they work their way into management as they are committed to productivity. However, their obsession for “results” can lead to an inability to take others with them and create a healthy team culture. People who work for such leaders can often feel under-appreciated, disempowered and even judged – and a perfectionist leader has to work very hard on their leadership style to avoid slipping into these natural negative styles of leadership.

The causes of this behavior vary. The commitment to being right, following the rules and attempting to be perfect can frequently stem from childhood – often an overly strict parent or caregiver features a prominent role of enforcing this compulsion. While you may not have much sympathy for a perfectionist when they critique you for the millionth time, remember that perfectionists frequently have a lifelong battle with guilt, inadequacy and the feeling of not measuring up. This may help reduce your own indignation in-the-moment and allow you to navigate conflict with more compassion.

Perfectionists are usually the hardest on themselves. However, with the right support and understanding from the people around them, they can grow into healthier patterns of thinking and leadership.


So what can you do to help your perfectionist?

Quite a lot actually. While they may be your boss, you can still lead by influencing your boss towards health.

  • Take them seriously. Often they are very good at the functional aspects of their role – so show respect where it is due.
  • Don’t over-commit. Communicate clearly what you will do – and stick to it.
  • Bridge friction by collaborating on how things can be optimized/improved.
  • Openly admit your mistakes. They will often respect you for it.
  • Avoid directly contradicting them. Instead, suggest.
  • Invite them to consider your point of view by explaining why you think it is the right path to take, appealing to their values, and speak with conviction.
  • Ask for what you want directly.
  • Help them properly express anger, not hold it in. (This will be hard if you tend to avoid conflict, but it is the best thing for them and your relationship.) Honesty is paramount.

The ultimate goal for a perfectionist is overcoming their own self-criticism by accepting the flaws within themselves. Acceptance of self is the key to enabling an idealist to accept that the world is imperfect, and let go of their bitter disappointment in it.

You can help them get there by:

  • Be encouraging, and affirm their commitment to integrity.
  • Challenge them if their expectations of themselves or others are unreasonable.
  • If you need to challenge certain leadership flaws, try to do so outside of the work environment in a more social setting (after-work drinks).
  • Gently help them see that they are being too rigid in their thinking. Encouraged openness by referencing past examples and facilitating solution-orientated discussion. “Blue-Sky” brainstorming where all limitations are put aside to brainstorm is a good exercise for the perfectionist, forcing them to aside criticism.

Your goal is to help your perfectionist fixate less on right/wrong and more on growth and improvement. In this way, their commitment to “right” is transformed into a commitment to growth. To this end they become less phobic of their own failure and critical of failure in others and become increasingly more gracious – recognizing that failure is a necessity for the growth they strive for.


In summary…

A maturing perfectionist must exchange a need for perfection for an appetite for growth.

Invite them to participate in open thinking exercises.

Show respect where it is due.

Be honest about your intentions and failures.

Understand their value system and appeal to it when to directly challenge them.


AT UHY Haines Norton we’re not just numbers numbers– we’re people experts, we know that long-term success in business is a result of great leadership. Businesses succeed when teams work well together, overcome personal differences, and leaders maximize the strengths of their team while mitigating the challenges of leading strong and contrasting personalities in their organizations.

We created our Business Improvement and Coaching services to equip business leaders to navigate the challenges of leading a diverse collection of people, overcoming personality differences and cultivating healthy teams.

Talk with us, and let’s discuss how you can get your team functioning at peak health and productivity.

Stay tuned for more…

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