Written by : Dr. Greg Chasson 

5 Strategies to Help You Enjoy Going to Work Again

Are you walking on eggshells around your employer? When it comes to dealing with a hard-to-please and perfectionistic manager, many employees find themselves riddled with anxiety. While others in the company might praise the boss for promoting high standards and a strong work ethic, the employees of this type of perfectionistic supervisor can feel oppressed, intimidated, and discouraged.

Perfectionistic bosses often have extreme expectations of others (or themselves), think in a highly rigid manner, seem fixated on processes and efficiency, come across as self-righteous, and overemphasize rules (e.g., be at work at 7 a.m.) instead of principles (e.g., be a punctual person).

Not surprisingly, these managers can create an exceptionally stressful work environment, resulting in employees feeling like they’re never doing enough, their goals are insufficient, and their standards are subpar. This tends to be demoralizing for the entire team. As a result, employees stuck in this workplace culture often feel helpless, and after contending with continued frustrations, they can eventually experience profound hopelessness.

When a boss’s perfectionistic tendencies are projected onto others in the workplace, it can lead to many feeling like they have to tiptoe around the office. This is because employees are terrified of completing “imperfect” work, which can set off a prickly boss.

Fortunately, there are ways to make this work situation more manageable. Although there are no magic techniques that will guarantee success, the following strategies can help you breathe more easily around a perfectionistic boss:

1. Pick Your Battles

Do not fight the war on every front. Be judicious about which of your boss’s behaviors and interactions you address. Accept that you cannot fix all of them, as employers often don’t respond well to pushback at every turn. For this reason, it’s vital to find the balance between addressing their perfectionism and preserving your relationship with them.

2. Use Assertiveness to Communicate

An assertive communication style generally protects the relationship, preserves self-respect, and conveys your needs. When taking this approach, choose language that focuses on your experience rather than your boss’s shortcomings. You can do this by selecting “I” rather than “You” statements. For example, instead of saying, “Your timeline is unreasonable and unfair,” try, “I’m worried about getting this project done on time, as the timeline seems very ambitious.” Communication also includes nonverbal behavior. You can’t say the assertive statement while rolling your eyes and snickering because it will invalidate the proactive nature of the content.

3. Be Private

Do not call out a perfectionistic boss in public, in front of the team, or in front of the boss’s supervisors or other key stakeholders. This is a recipe for defensiveness and shattered trust in the workplace. Instead, provide feedback to them in private.

4. Leverage Strength in Numbers

Sometimes, it is more effective when a cohort of individuals gently brings feedback to a perfectionistic supervisor. It’s easy for a perfectionistic boss to dismiss one person’s concerns, but it’s a little more challenging when it’s coming from a group of people. This only works, however, if the communication strategy isn’t hostile (see #2 above) and isn’t public (see #3 above).

5. Set Reasonable Boundaries

Combine these tips with your assertiveness to establish reasonable boundaries with your boss. Boundaries work best when they are based on your values. Do you place high regard on work-life balance, family, financial security, learning, and curiosity? Use these values to guide what boundaries you need to set with your employer. However, be mindful that your values may not always align with those of your boss or organization and that you may need to negotiate these with them.

While these tips will help you address a manager’s perfectionistic behavior in most situations, not all bosses will respond well to feedback or attempts at addressing their perfectionism. Therefore, it’s imperative that you assess your particular situation and determine whether these tips make sense for your workplace. Perfectionistic bosses can be tricky to navigate, but you now have tools to reduce your workplace anxiety and create a more harmonious workplace culture.

Dr. Greg Chasson is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is also an Associate Professor, the Director of Behavioral Interventions of the Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders Clinic in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, a keynote speaker, and the author of FLAWED: Why Perfectionism is a Challenge for Management.

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