How to Collaborate with a Perfectionist

It can be draining to work with a perfectionist. While it’s great to work with colleagues who care about the quality of their work, perfectionists take it a step further. Their unrelenting standards can result in unnecessary stress, conflict, and missed deadlines due to a failure to prioritize the big picture over the details. If you try to remind them that “perfect is the enemy of finished,” they may see you as a corner-cutter. Perfectionism is common enough that we’ll all eventually encounter perfectionists in the workplace. So how can you collaborate more productively with them? I have five suggestions, drawn from psychological research into perfectionism and also, anxiety, which is typically what underlies perfectionism. If you’re a perfectionist yourself, you’ll learn tips here for how you can create smoother, stronger working relationships.

Figure Out Which Type of Perfectionist You’re Dealing With

In my experience, there are two types of perfectionists. Avoidant perfectionists have trouble beginning tasks. Deadlines trigger their anxiety about doing things perfectly, and therefore, they drag their feet when starting a new project. On the other hand, Obsessive perfectionists tends to struggle to complete tasks.

Both kinds of perfectionists have trouble prioritizing, and struggle to allocate their time according to what’s most important. Both types also share a habit of expanding the scope of projects. But how you deal with these traits may differ according to the type you’re dealing with.

For people who struggle to get started, you can help by clarifying the task and breaking it down into smaller components. For people who have a hard time finishing, you can focus on prioritizing the elements of the task, and reminding them of prior decisions about its scope.

Since perfectionists often have difficulty setting logical limits on tasks themselves, they may find it very helpful to have someone else do this with them. If you have a respectful and trusting relationship with your colleague, limit setting can improve a relationship rather than create tension. This is particularly true when perfectionism stems from anxiety.

Don’t Internalize Unrealistic Expectations

Consider this scenario: Your perfectionist teammate wants you to update a 15-column tracking spreadsheet every week, when a five-column sheet is all you need, and realistically it’s only going to be used once a month.

Perfectionists tend to equate time with quality, so you’ll need to be particularly thoughtful and diplomatic in explaining why you don’t want to spend that much time on this project. The goal is to explain the opportunity cost of spending excess time filling in ten marginally useful columns of data when you could be serving the company in more productive ways. Be specific and detailed about what those “more productive ways” are, and clear and concrete in explaining why those additional 10 columns won’t be useful.

If this conversation is a difficult one, don’t take it personally. Try to have the mindset that every individual, including you, has their own flaws. Tensions in the workplace are normal. A challenging encounter doesn’t reflect negatively on you or your colleague as people. The consequences of letting yourself get worked up and attaching unnecessary emotional baggage to the situation will be more harmful than productive. 

Find out how your perfectionist colleague prefers to receive feedback. Some will prefer to receive it via email so they have a chance to privately process any initial defensive reactions they have. Self-aware perfectionists typically come-around to a constructive reaction once they’ve had time for their initial strong responses to feedback subside. 

Support Processes that Help the Team Focus on the Big Picture

A defining feature of problematic perfectionism is losing sight of the big picture. While it’s the team leader’s job to develop processes and keep everyone on the team focused on key priorities, there are some things that anyone at any level can do to try and help. During team meetings, you might ask:

  • Is there a simpler way we can achieve our goal?
  • Can we shrink down the amount of time we’re spending?
  • What’s the opportunity cost of spending extra time on this versus another task?

For projects where you’re working with a perfectionist, you can also try creating a basic checklist to help the group stay organized, relieve anxieties surrounding to-dos, and ensure that nothing is being overlooked. Hewing to a clear decision-making process, and documenting what decisions have been made, should also help things move forward.


You can encourage the use of heuristics for making decisions that help everyone in the team to quickly and effectively prioritize, like, “If an opportunity is worth less than $X, we’ll automatically pass it up,” or “If a project ends up taking more than X hours to complete, we’ll let our manager know.”

Set Boundaries

A perfectionist’s unrealistic expectations can unintentionally make their teammates feel like their time is not being valued. Let’s take the example of a hard-driving perfectionist who sends you an excessive number of emails — each one with a different question or suggestion — when he’s feeling overwhelmed.

It might be tempting to ignore these emails, or even respond in a curt way, but instead try setting boundaries.

For example, you might choose not to respond to your perfectionist colleague’s evening or weekend emails; or you might decide that you’ll respond to all of their messages once per day, but that’s it. If low priority group emails are being responded to on weekends or late at night, you may need to institute a team policy or guideline about this.

It’s important to recognize that every individual will engage in some self-sabotaging behaviors that, in turn, affect the rest of the team. But by developing boundaries, you will create a culture that encourages personal growth.

Enhance Feelings of Security Through Mutual Influence

Mutual influence is when a teammate allows you to influence their way of thinking and vice versa. It is an important factor that helps any relationship feel more secure. If a perfectionist’s habits irritate you, try compromising. Identify elements of their routine that may be useful to incorporate into your own. If you expect someone else to bend to your way, then you need to show that you’re willing to bend to theirs.

When people feel a sense of relationship security, it’s much easier for them to receive critical feedback. There are several ways to help a perfectionist colleague feel more secure. Show your perfectionist teammates that you think of them highly, and believe in their talent and capabilities. Perfectionists need to know that your general view of them is positive, and that small mistakes, like making a typo, isn’t going to impact your overall confidence in them. When a perfectionist trusts that you will provide feedback without judgment, he or she is able to more easily overcome emotional roadblocks and perform better.

The relationship dynamic will be different between an employee and their boss versus a relationship between two peers. However, for both parties to feel secure, there should be elements of mutual influence, including being open and responsive. Perfectionists have many strengths and can make amazing teammates. Make sure you take advantage of your opportunity to learn from their strengths.

By understanding some of the common habits of perfectionists you can better understand their perspective and struggles. In doing so, you open the door to a healthy relationship in which you can learn from one another and build a more harmonious work environment.

Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.


How to Get People to Collaborate When You Don’t Control Their Salary

Most of us assume that if we want to change people’s behavior, we need to change their incentives.

For example, after I published research and advice on collaboration in professional service firms, I heard from a surprising number of people who wrote to ask questions like, “Maybe it’ll work in a partnership, like a law or consulting firm, but what about in my company, where employees aren’t owners and can’t change the rules?” People in industries as different as commercial real estate, pharma, biotech startups, hedge funds, and public school districts worried about how to transform a competitive, star-driven culture into a collaborative one when they had no power to juggle financial rewards and no influence over promotion decisions.

To pursue this issue, I picked a new research setting where the reward system is highly constrained — and so is the career ladder. By investigating how a leader can boost cross-silo collaboration without changing either the compensation or the promotion system, maybe we could find lessons that translate to companies where people also face limits on their ability to change organizational structures.

Tackling Collaboration in a Constrained Setting

The Boston-based Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is one of the world’s leading institutions for adult and pediatric patients. Collaboration is as necessary as it is tricky in this setting. Just as with business knowledge, scientific knowledge is changing so rapidly that Dana-Farber’s doctor-researchers must evolve quickly from generalists to specialists who focus on a highly specialized niche within cancer detection and treatment. Yet tackling cancer requires a multidisciplinary effort, ranging from disease biology to population monitoring. Research efforts can’t focus on applying the findings of deep, narrow studies; they must add up to a much broader, more integrated program.

The difficult angle for the Dana-Farber — the challenge shared by many companies — is that collaboration doesn’t come naturally to many of the highest performers and the system seems almost geared against teamwork. The organizational stars have tremendous autonomy over key work decisions. And just like software engineers who hold code in their head or a law firm partner who controls critical client relationships, the Dana-Farber scientists hold a credible threat of walking out the door with their IP and grant-winning prowess. The parallels with business are clear: Stars are a crucial but perhaps fragile source of innovation and competitive advantage.

Here was the paradox for leaders: While fostering smart collaboration, they had to maintain Dana-Farber’s entrepreneurial approach to research. And they faced big constraints. Because the researchers in question were members of the Harvard faculty, the Dana-Farber leaders couldn’t influence promotion criteria, nor could they reward people differentially through compensation.

So how do you jumpstart collaboration without transforming the pay or promotion system? The problem is that collaboration requires an investment. My analyses show that “smart collaboration” — that is, collaboration targeted at the right opportunities — nearly always pays out, but only after people spend time developing the underlying relationships and processes. Many people and companies start the investment, but quit before seeing the returns. Only if you stick with the effort through a long enough time frame can you expect the returns to become positive. This is how collaboration gets embedded as a normal way of working. But how to get through the pain barrier? 

Jumpstarting collaboration 

To foster collaboration, your initial hurdle is to capture people’s attention and give them the confidence to take some risks in order to make the initial investment. Costs naturally drop as people gain experience collaborating and develop the trusted relationships that smooth the process, but you should take steps to lower those costs more quickly. Likewise, your actions can make the benefits start to flow sooner. Both these efforts help the payback period arrive sooner, making collaboration a smarter investment for the next wave of people. Here are steps to keep in mind:

Pick your battles carefully. Make sure you’re focusing efforts to foster collaboration where it’s most needed: tackling complex problems that require the inputs of multiple specialized experts who couldn’t confront the issue without integrating their knowledge. If you’re operating in a highly individualistic culture, select a “coalition of the willing,” people who are favorably inclined to collaborate and won’t gripe to colleagues about a few hiccups while you build momentum.

Convince with quantitative evidence. Harness your internal sales data to show people that smart collaboration is not just a nice-to-have — it’s a strategic advantage for capturing market share. The bars in the chart below, for example, show how much your sales force increases revenue per client when people work across boundaries to sell multiple services. But the circles, which indicate how few clients are actually served by the full range, show how much upside potential still exists.

Drive down collaboration costs. Broker important relationships to help people build the necessary networks quickly. Use simple, off-the-shelf tools to make collaboration smoother. For example, make sure Skype and Dropbox or similar programs work with your IT system so that teammates can easily communicate and share documents. Pair a technology whiz with any employee who needs support with the tools; a personal relationship makes the uptake much likelier than expecting someone to learn on their own or to rely on the IT hotline. For major collaboration projects, Dana-Farber assigned coleaders who shouldered the administrative burdens while the superstar researcher provided the thought leadership. Take the heat of other short-term goals so that time spent collaborating feels like less of an opportunity cost.

Harness the power of competition. Publicize advances that people make collaboratively to stir up some constructive rivalry among peers. Set up contests and award small prizes for steps people take in the right direction, such as submitting joint sales plans rather than individual ones. Some companies now use gamification technology to engage employees in collaborative actions ranging from meeting new colleagues to completing team-based business goals.

Get the benefits flowing faster. Since the financial payout for collaboration can take a while, be sure to reward inputs while people are in the early stages of learning new collaborative processes. Dana-Farber evaluated scientists’ efforts at including experts from other disciplines as well as contributing to other researchers’ projects — and then recognized them again much later when those efforts turned into publications or successful grants. Make it easy for people to call out colleagues who helped them, and celebrate both the contributor and communicator. Let people directly reward each other. For example, have a stockpile of small gift cards that employees can access to thank each other for their collaborative efforts.

 Dana-Farber ultimately succeeded in building 10 integrative research centers that bring together the world’s leading researchers to battle cancer in multidisciplinary ways that would be nearly impossible if each specialist was confined to their traditional silo. (You can read my deeper analysis of Dana-Farber here.) Business leaders, too, can harness the power of collaboration by taking some of these steps to sustain momentum until the rewards of collaboration consistently outweigh the costs.

Heidi K. Gardner is a distinguished fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession and faculty chair of the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School. This article draws on research in her book Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).