Perfectionists excel at accomplishing tasks well. However, since not everyone in the world will be a perfectionist, odds are that if you are one, you will have to deal with non-perfectionists at some point in your life.
Remember, it can be equally frustrating on both sides of the equation when a perfectionist and non-perfectionist have to deal with each other.
This article is not intended to imply that perfectionism is “good” or “bad”. Rather, this article is simply designed to explain how the perfectionist can best get his or her message across to the non-perfectionist in a positive and friendly manner.
Are you a perfectionist?
Although there are numerous psychological tests you could take to determine whether or not you are a perfectionist, for the purposes of this article if you think perfectionism is a good or positive trait, then you are probably a perfectionist. If you think perfectionism is a negative trait then you are probably a non-perfectionist.
For the purposes of this article, we will be considering hobbies, home life, leisure etc, but not the workplace (although the ideas here could still be validly applied to the workplace). This is because a certain minimum level of attention to detail and perfectionism is required in a workplace setting, so even non-perfectionists tend to become more perfectionist in the workplace.
Step 1. Don’t necessarily assume that non-perfectionists are lazy
Lazy people are most likely non-perfectionists. But be aware non-perfectionists are not all lazy! Many are very hardworking. They simply have different priorities to you. They will work hard at what they think is important, but will not concern themselves with every detail. The details are precisely what makes you a perfectionist, so you may find this attitude of theirs very frustrating.
A non-perfectionist will tend to ask themselves: “does this detail truly matter?” before committing any time to it at all. A perfectionist will tend to assume by default that most details matter. Again, it’s simply a different mindset.
Step 2. Understand that the non-perfectionist is also prioritizing their work. Their priorities are likely different to yours.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that your priorities are “better”, nor that theirs are “better”. They are simply different to each other.
Non-perfectionists tend to remind themselves that they have a finite amount of time to get things done, and will pre-allocate a set amount of time to a task. Whatever falls outside of that time doesn’t get done, and other items will then move up the order of precedence.
A perfectionist, by contrast, is more likely to adopt the attitude of “however long it takes”.
EXAMPLE: Preparing for house guests
The perfectionist will....
- Make sure all tasks are done, even cosmetic ones such as mowing the lawn if there is any doubt.
- This may mean being up late at night or not spending as much time with the kids in the week leading up to the guest’s arrival.
The non-perfectionist will...
- Ensure the most essential tasks are done (cleaning the house, making sleeping arrangements). After that, less essential tasks will be allocated if time allows.
- Decide which is more important and act accordingly: getting enough sleep, spending time with the kids, or having the lawn mowed at the optimal time.
Again, neither attitude is better or worse – both parties simply look at things very differently.
Step 3: How to offer critique and improvements
One big advantage of perfectionists is their ability to get things right and pay attention to detail. However, an important part of dealing with non-perfectionists is knowing when to, and more importantly, when not to offer criticism. Often, a non-perfectionist will have already gone through a prioritizing process described above and worked according to their priorities. Remember, these may not be the same as yours.
An important tip for dealing productively with non-perfectionists is that if you wish to offer suggestions for improvement, first ask yourself if it is truly helpful or necessary. For example, criticizing the height of someone’s lawn is not truly helpful to them, even if you think it will be. They are probably aware it is higher than normal but it probably conflicted with one of their higher priorities (which again, will not be the same as your priorities).
Another generic type of example to avoid is: “Wow, you could really improve that by doing/adding ……”. Unless you are an expert at the issue and he or she is a complete novice, please refrain from any of these comments. Usually such comments are not at all helpful (even if you believe they are). For example, I have once heard the comment: “you could make those cupcakes amazing if you had put in some grated lemon peel.” From the perfectionist’s viewpoint, he or she is simply stating a fact or trying to help. From the non-perfectionist’s viewpoint, it feels like annoying criticism or a request for extra work on something on which the person has already worked hard.
When to offer critique
Your constructive criticism is helpful and appreciated in these situations:
- In an area where you are an expert and he or she is a novice.
- When the non-perfectionist asks for your opinion or input. In this situation, you can feel very free to speak your mind.
- When the non-perfectionist would be at risk (or put others at risk) without your critique. This may be as simple as an etiquette blunder or as big as a safety risk, financial risk, legal risk, etc. If the consequences of the non-perfectionist’s decision present real harm or discomfort of any sort (or the potential for it), then speak up. Many home improvement projects, for example, could fall into this category where your advice is needed and appreciated. Helping avoid embarrassment through proper etiquette is also an area where you are needed. However, if the non-perfectionist’s decision will not result in any harm or even embarrassment (e.g. height of the lawn, less-than-optimal cupcakes), then please refrain from speaking up about it.
How to offer critique
It is OK to be blunt about an issue which presents a significant risk. However, if you wish to be as diplomatic as possible about something, you can try these phrasings:
- “Remind me why you aren’t doing it this way?” or
- “What were your reasons for doing it that way?” or
- “Do you think it would still work if you…..?”
The other person’s response can be a great door-opener for you to then get your critique across, but you can rest assured you will come off in a more friendly manner with such an opening.
The take-home message from this step
Ultimately, the non-perfectionist is more likely to respond positively and actually utilize your constructive criticism when you appear friendly and curious, and when your critique is about something important.
When it comes to improving anything, there is no-one better than the perfectionist
A perfectionist will ask themselves: “Does this detail improve or work toward the overall aim of my project?” If the answer is yes the perfectionist will tend to work productively on that detail.By contrast, a non-perfectionist in the same situation will as themselves “How much will this detail improve or work toward the overall aim of my project?” If the detail will significantly help, then the non-perfectionist will work on it. If the detail is believed to provide only a negligible improvement, then the non-perfectionist will ignore it or only spend the minimum possible time on it. This is yet another example of the differences in mindset.
Step 4: Getting both people’s aims in line
While an "agree to disagree" attitude is just fine if you’re not jointly working on a project together, odds are you will at some point have to work with someone else in a situation where you can’t each simply “live and let live”. This may be a joint project, such as a party you are co-hosting, for example. In this situation, it is best if both people can agree on what are the most important aims for that idea or project. Write these aims down together if need be!
In such a scenario, both the non-perfectionist and the perfectionist may have to compromise to decide what is important and what is not. Details that seem unimportant to the non-perfectionist will have to now make it onto their radar, while the perfectionist should likewise be willing to understand that there is a finite amount of time that the other person is willing to spend on the project, and some of the smallest details may consequently have to go off the radar. Both should try to meet each other halfway if at all possible.
Marriage between a perfectionist and a non-perfectionist
If you truly love each other then it doesn’t matter one bit if one of you is a perfectionist and the other a non-perfectionist. You will find some mutually satisfactory way to make your differences work out. However, such a difference can certainly did make things harder as you both might have different priorities and are centered somewhat differently. So rest assured that a perfectionist and a non-perfectionist can have a very happy and successful marriage together. As with any difference in mindset, it is how you both deal with it that is important.
Step 5: Praise what you appreciated about the non-perfectionist’s work
The saying "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar" is very true. If you have to work often with a non-perfectionist then praise any details that were done well, instead of only mentioning what was missed.
After a time, he or she will realize that even though those details may be unimportant to themselves, such things are important to you. So the non-perfectionist may start attending to those types of details for your sake because you appreciated them, even though he or she may never come to see those details as important in and of themselves.
If you are a perfectionist, you will quickly realize that not everyone works to the same standards to which you hold yourself. Yet working with other people is part of life. The 5 steps above show how you can deal positively and productively with a non-perfectionist.