I had a client who is an admitted perfectionist. You know the kind of manager who expects things done the way he would do them? He struggles with letting go of details and has a firm belief in the “right” way to do something. He fancied himself the Steve Jobs of this or that. His plate runneth over with the work of subordinates that he has to fix.
Maybe you’ve worked with someone like him before. Maybe you’re a perfectionist yourself.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting things done right. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best results possible. There is something wrong with being unable to allow team members, fellow professionals in their own right, to provide a work product that reflects their experience and skill.
The wrongness compounds when the work of the team is taken on by the perfectionist manager. He declares that all details be reviewed by him, or he does the work himself. He complains about it, of course. Bitching about the inability to find people who are as good as himself. Moaning about how much more he must now do.
He’s made himself into a martyr.
So, let’s be clear about this: a perfectionist is often a terrible manager. A manager’s job is to develop the people who report to him. It’s his job to understand their skills and expertise and direct both toward accomplishing the organization’s goals.
A perfectionist manager wastes the organization’s money. He relegates skilled – and expensive – talent to task puppets who can only complete projects in his way. He slows productivity by insisting on being an approval step for every part of a project. He reduces his efficiency by adding more work to his plate.
He’s not a martyr.
Developing employees requires perfecting communication and teaching. A good manager must give up his hubris and learn to respect the expertise of others. He must trust the organization’s investment in every team member and work to maximize the return on that investment.
All of this is easier said than done for the perfectionist manager.
This way of being is a mindset and minds take time to change. There is one step I recommend to a perfectionist manager to start the process of change: get over yourself. Here’s what I say to perfectionist managers:
“You’re not Steve Jobs. In the history of humanity, all eight billion of us, there has been one Steve Jobs, and you’re not number two. Even if you consider Steve Jobs as an archetype for historical geniuses, consider the number of people who fit into that category. The numerator of geniuses is dwarfed by the denominator of humanity. It’s unlikely that you’re above the dividing line.”
Bummer? Yeah, I can be when I want people to be the best “them” possible.
In the midst of being committed to doing things the “right” way, the perfectionist fails to consider one fundamental issue that comes with being human: they can be wrong. Steve Jobs was wrong plenty of times. So wrong, in fact, he was fired.
The numerous battles the perfectionist picks often do not reflect the core value that they were hired to deliver. The inability to determine what details actually matter and warrant their attention is a flaw in their mindset and keeps them from providing full value to the organization.
How does one gain humility? The perfectionist manager should find and empower someone to call them on their crap. A trusted voice that tells them when they are wasting time and effort. The trusted voice role is a core part of gaining humility. It provides a reverse-mirror view that allows the perfectionist to see himself the way others see him. Knowing when and how you’re wrong is the best way of learning how to be better and more right.
Humility is a powerful thing. It’s the perfect tool for being highly successful. It’s also the thing that Steve Jobs brought to the table when he returned to Apple.
Most importantly, humility frees the perfectionist manager to be the creator, fixer or whatever kind of genius they are meant to be. It allows them to stop being “the next Steve Jobs” and to be the first them.