Jul 28

Coaching and Mentoring Perfectionists

Perfectionists are driven to succeed, strive to continually improve and work hard to avoid mistakes. 

Perfectionists are driven to succeed, strive to continually improve and work hard to avoid mistakes. Particularly when you have your own perfectionist tendencies (like me) it is easy to align perfectionism with diligence, excellence and well…perfection. In fact, habitual perfectionism is in itself an imperfection.

The perfectionist’s need to avoid mistakes stifles creativity. Impatience with the mistakes of others makes perfectionists poor delegators. Incessant focus on minutiae to ensure 100% accuracy leads to poor productivity. Perhaps most dangerous, the inevitable inability of perfectionists to live up to their own high standards leads to relentless self criticism, depression and anxiety.

It is the very fact that perfectionism looks like a virtue, when it is not, that makes coaching or mentoring a perfectionist so difficult.

Identifying a Perfectionist

Your first challenge will be identifying problem perfectionism. It is a fine line that runs between the striving for excellence that will make a mentee successful and the fixation on perfection that becomes a weakness. Most successful people walk that line, so how do you know exactly what you are dealing with?

Here are some signs of problem perfectionism to look out for:

1. Difficulty completing tasks on time. This may be a sign that your mentee is spending too much time trying to ensure their work is perfect.

2. Tendency to see their mistakes as proof of inadequacy rather than a learning opportunity. Is your mentee unreasonably hard on themselves they makes a mistake?

3. Intolerance of imperfections in others. Does you mentee complain about the performance of others on their team?

4. Unwillingness to ask for help or to reveal anything that might look like a weakness. Is your mentee trying a little too hard to appear perfect?

5. Unwillingness to take risks. Does your mentee seem hesitant about taking on new responsibilities for fear of failure?

Mentoring a Perfectionist

Unfortunately it doesn’t get easier once you’ve identified that your mentee is a problem perfectionist. Remember that perfectionism looks like a virtue, so you may have a hard time getting your mentee to accept it is as a weakness.

So what do you do? Here are some tips:

1. Be a good (imperfect) role model.
Don’t pretend that you have all the answers and be willing to acknowledge your own ignorance. Every time you say, “I don’t know”, you give permission to your mentee to not have all the answers.
Where possible, discuss your own mistakes and how you have learned from them. Not only does this demonstrate your own willingness to accept yourself as infallible, it also illustrates the learning potential of taking risks and making mistakes.

2. Be careful with feedback.
Anything perceived as criticism can send a perfectionist into a spiral of self-doubt. Focus instead on affirmation, validation and encouragement. When your mentee does admit to failures or mistakes, help them identify what has been learned and how that learning can benefit them and the organisation.

3. Help your mentee to recognise when perfectionism is being carried too far.
Call out perfectionist thoughts and behaviour. Challenge your mentee to recognise when they are being unreasonable. For example, compare the impact of a few small spelling mistakes in an important report, versus the impact of delivering that report late.
Help your mentee to assess the difference between a major and a minor error. For example, finding every single spelling mistake in a 100-page document versus getting the spelling of the client’s name correct on the first page.
Encourage your mentee to discuss expectations and priorities with their manager so they understands what management might see as a minor or major error.

4. Help your mentee to get comfortable with imperfection.
Recognising the difference between major and minor mistakes is one thing, but your perfectionist mentee may need help being open to making even trifling errors.
Consider asking your mentee to deliberately make some mistakes and refuse to fix them. This doesn’t need to be a career-limiting exercise. Perhaps simply ask him to send you an email chock full of typos and learn to live with the anxiety.

5. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Mentoring a perfectionist is difficult. Don’t expect anything to change overnight. Be patient with your mentee and with yourself.

© Melissa Richardson