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 critical feedback, ‘must try harder’. Yet as a manager, I’ve also felt the frustration at having to explain something again – and again. And maybe again.
First of all, take a reality check. Is your boss a perfectionist with everyone, including themselves? 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.
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. However, before you have that discussion ask yourself: 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. Your boss might have a point. Don’t give them shoddy work or half the job. When they tell you that something is wrong, ask them to show you the steps to get it right.
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.
If you’re flat-out, you will need to negotiate with them constructively. What this means is not a long, groaning list of everything else you have to do. What this means is asking, ‘does X take priority over Y? or do we need to push something back?’ They may, 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.
Show you’re learning from mistakes. When they delegate a task to you, ask questions to clarify upfront what’s expected and whenever practical, get them to give you an example. Make clear notes on what they’re asking of you and, like a waiter in a restaurant, ‘read back the order’ to check you have it right. Work with them to create a process map or checklist to ensure you take the right steps at the right time. Then if they find fault with the work, agree if and how the map or list will need to be updated to ensure it’s right next time.
Working for a perfectionist can be trying; it will test your resolve and patience. On the positive side, you’ll learn a great deal, such as ‘what good looks like around here’ and how to adapt to different managers’ foibles and preferences.
You may find this post useful: ‘5 tips for managing upwards’
If you want to find out more about my ‘How to manage upwards’ workshop, please get in touch.