How to deal with a perfectionist

Driven mad by a controlling coworker? Try the ‘hit-and-run’ approach.

Andrew Tolson

The next time someone criticizes you for missing a blade of grass while mowing the back lawn, remember that the critic in your life may be a controlling perfectionist who suffers from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, a condition that affects about two per cent of the population. There is no point trying to change perfectionists. They perceive their inadequacies as strengths. They are well-organized, punctual, tidy, moral and meticulously groomed, all qualities rewarded by society, except for their habit of incessant criticism, which can shatter the self-esteem of those around them.

There is also no point trying to convince perfectionists they have a problem, explain psychology professors Neil Lavender and Alan Cavaiola, the authors of a new book called Impossible to Please: How to Deal With Perfectionist Coworkers, Controlling Spouses, and Other Incredibly Critical People. As Lavender and Cavaiola point out, if you tell perfectionists they’re too fussy, they’ll tell you you’re too lax. If you tell them they’re too critical, they’ll tell you they’re doing you a favour. The best way to maintain your self-esteem is to recognize that it’s the perfectionist who has the problem. “Take note of a truth about constant criticism. Logically, it can’t all be valid,” write the authors.

Researchers believe that perfectionism and criticism are actually psychological defence mechanisms for keeping others at a distance. “It’s difficult to get close to someone who is criticizing you,” the authors note, advising us to remember that perfectionists aren’t actually perfect.

The best strategy is to spend time away from the perfectionist, and to do things that benefit you alone, even if it’s watching whatever you want on TV. Try to avoid thinking defeatist thoughts and try using a “hit-and-run” style of communication when asserting yourself. “State exactly what it is you want to say and then leave the room, or make a quick excuse to end the conversation, such as, ‘Sorry, I’ve got to run. Talk to you later.’ ”

Stick to your guns, urge the authors. “Once you’ve taken a position, don’t back down. Don’t apologize for getting upset, concede a minor point or allow your statement to be picked apart.”

At work, for instance, if a perfectionist co-worker complains that you talk too loudly or make too many phone calls, you could accommodate her by speaking more softly, but the point is that you don’t have to. Take time to consider the things you have control over. “People can complain that you eat too quickly, drive too slowly and even take too long in the bathroom. But there isn’t really much they can do about it, is there?” write Lavender and Cavaiola.

No need to be nasty when you assert yourself, counsel the experts. Simply say, politely, “This is the way I talk. I don’t think I can change it. We’re all different.”

On the phone from New Jersey, Cavaiola explains that certain professions, such as medicine and education, are breeding grounds for perfectionists, and that perfectionists rarely make good leaders. “Sometimes they get lost in details and rules and it stifles creativity. We see that in a work group, where rather than entertaining the ideas of others—‘Oh, that’s a good idea! We should try that’—it’s more that it has to be ‘my way or the highway.’ It stifles them from taking a leadership role.”

The book gives the example of a boss who constantly corrects everyone’s grammar and spelling. When you need him to review your report, he gets hung up on critiquing your English. Try using humour, they suggest: “Ted, you’re like a frustrated fifth-grade teacher. I think you missed your calling.” Or simply: “Ted, thanks for correcting my grammar. Now, could you look over my calculations also? That’s what I’d really like help with.”

If a perfectionist displays emotion, avoid commenting on it. Don’t snipe, “Oh, I see you have feelings.” This will only embarrass the perfectionist. Instead, when these teachable moments occur, be warm and accepting, suggest the authors. The perfectionist may slowly learn that he won’t be ridiculed for actually showing a human side.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.