Coaching Perfectionists

Last week I wrote about what I learned from Daniel Goleman and Dan Siegel, MD, at Harvard’s Institute of Coaching Professional Association conference.  This week I want to tell you about some other news for coaches from Harvard’s Medical School, specifically coaching perfectionists, from a session led by Jeff Szymanski.  Perfectionism is a behavior often addressed in coaching engagements.

Mr. Szymanski said it is important to keep in mind both the good news and bad news when coaching a proclaimed (or actual) perfectionist.

First, the good news:  “They are driven to succeed, work hard to avoid mistakes and are always striving to improve.  They persist at tasks until they reach the desired outcome. ”  Now, the bad news:  “They sometimes get caught up in strategies with poor payoffs — they are working hard but spinning their wheels.  The feedback they hear can be interpreted as catastrophic or ‘lower the bar.’  It can be a challenge to work with someone who needs everything to be perfect.”

The question to ask a perfectionist is “How do you want others to see you?”  A common response can be wanting to be seen as intelligent, independent and good at what the person does.  Really, this answer is no different from what most of us would say.  However, there is a difference which comes through further understanding — the perfectionist ‘has a harder time rolling with the punches when they have an off day, get a bad review, or make a mistake.’

So how does one coach a perfectionist?  Giving feedback to perfectionists is a tricky business.  So here are some strategies to consider:

  • ‘Be clear about your goals and expectations.’  Because perfectionists tend to set unrealistic objectives for themselves, the coach should not fall into the same trap.  Instead, ‘share your expectations and goals explicitly and directly so the perfectionist doesn’t waste time on things that aren’t very important.’
  • ‘Encourage a perfectionist to share a work-in-progress with you.’  Since perfectionists prefer to show only finished end products, they are loathe to show you an incomplete piece of work.  ‘Working on iterations of a project together creates a sense of collaboration and reduces the likelihood that a perfectionist will get bogged down in unnecessary details.’
  • ‘Perfectionists struggle with making mistakes.’  Because perfectionists lose sight of the difference between ‘a minor mistake versus a major error,’ you can address this behavior by setting ‘clear expectations’ and working together as the activity unfolds. While perfectionists often motivate themselves via self-criticism, it can be effective but demoralizing.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, if you focus on their weakness they will view it was an opportunity to improve performance, ‘keeping them on track.  As a coach you can help reframe their mistakes by ‘highlighting the value of deliberate practice and experimentation.’
  • ‘Persistence is different from perseveration.’  By using the same strategies time and time again, they don’t realize that the strategy is at fault; they continue to execute as though something will change if they just get it right the next time.  “In this case, acknowledge the individual’s effort, but encourage a shift in strategy.”  Unfortunately, perfectionists are not able to see that ‘more is not always better and that if something isn’t paying off, it’s time to try something different.’

Coaching perfectionists is about ‘helping them learn to differentiate between intention, strategy and outcome.  It’s not necessarily about changing their intention and desired outcome; it is about learning to help them vary their strategies.’

As a coach, you want to find the ways ‘perfectionists get stuck and help them identify unhealthy perfectionism from healthy perfectionism, which sets high but achievable standards that lead to feelings of satisfaction and increased self-esteem.’


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  1. Great post. I am currently working with an organisation on a work/life balance programme and providing one to one coaching. A large proportion of the coachees are perfectionists who have ended up with a lack of balance in their lives due to wanting everything perfect. Coaching them is very much about preserving their values whilst changing their strategies and focussing on healthy perfectionism.

    • Frank Faeth says

      Hello Colin,

      Thank you for reading my blog and for commenting on what I wrote about perfectionists. There is indeed something in our cultures that has increased (no evidence to prove that; just my gut) a tendency toward perfectionism. One reason I think that is true in the US is a deep fear about losing your job — hence, you work extra hard (though not always effectively), strive to do everything right, don’t give yourself a break, and are critical of others who don’t behave the way you do. As you noted, they lack balance and that is quite sad when these individuals realize trying to be perfect gives them neither satisfaction nor job security.

      I hope you continue to read my blogs and comment, all of which I learn from.


    • my discipline at maainiintng these practices has been slipping. As someone with a history of procrastination, I have had any number of reasons (read: excuses) as to why I cannot do any or all of them. Since I

      • Frank Faeth says


        There are many reasons why people procrastinate, and I’m not knowledgeable enough in that area to provide any advice. I do know that perfectionists can procrastinate until they know their result is going to be perfect. What they lose by doing so is not learning from the process and giving themselves an opportunity to let down.


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