Perhaps It’s Time to Learn to Leave Good Enough Alone : Behavior: Perfectionism--especially in a boss--can be deadly in the workplace, management consultants say.


Lawrence J. Stupski was a perfect president for Charles Schwab Corp. Too perfect.

Stupski used to be a hard-driving perfectionist who demanded more of his employees and most of himself. But now Stupski is, in the parlance of 12-step self-help programs, a non-practicing perfectionist. He’s taming his demons, and colleagues who weathered his 12-year reign at Schwab are grateful.

For although Stupski’s perfectionism propelled the company to tremendous growth--and helped make many of his subordinates rich--it was also a factor in his divorce from his first wife and stress-induced problems in the lives of employees, including divorces of their own.


And certainly it was a cause of the major heart attack Stupski suffered nearly four years ago at age 46.

Perfectionism, management consultants say, can be a deadly trait in the workplace, especially if the perfectionist is the boss.

In a 10-year study of perfectionism and its ramifications, involving more than 9,000 managers, “the single most important finding is that perfectionism makes you sick,” said Clayton Lafferty, director of Human Synergistics, a Plymouth, Mich., research and consulting firm. “The illness rate is much higher for these folks. The common ailments are cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, headaches and migraines.”

Many companies aspire to have a perfectionist at the helm; they’re super-competent, hard-working, bright people. “You just don’t find stupid perfectionists,” Lafferty said.

Indeed, Charles R. Schwab, chairman and chief executive of the company bearing his name, said Stupski’s penchant for perfection was a “nice complement” to his own more generalist style.

“I would articulate things,” Schwab said, “and he would put it in more finite detail so people could understand the instructions and get things done.”

But a true perfectionist’s compulsion to do more and be better can drive the employees crazy, delay significant decisions and even harm the company financially, say consultants and psychologists.

Never satisfied with their own efforts, perfectionists are seldom satisfied with others’; often, say consultants who have studied them, they are too locked into their own need to be perfect to realize the distress they cause their employees.

Esther Orioli, chief executive of Essi Systems Inc., a San Francisco stress research and consulting firm, says that on measurements devised by her company, “perfectionists score lower on the compassion scale. They have a great deal of difficulty stepping back, being empathetic with others or self-forgiving for doing something less than perfectly.”

That was true of Stupski. “Larry was driven to perfectionism. He was hard on everyone, and most hard on himself,” said David S. Pottruck, who survived life as one of Stupski’s executive vice presidents--through two failed marriages--and succeeded him as president when Stupski took on the less operations-intensive role of vice chairman at Schwab in July, 1992.

“He’s one of brightest guys I’ve ever worked with. His enormous intellectual capacity and curiosity constantly drove him to search for better and better ways of making decisions and operating the company,” Pottruck said.

Like many perfectionists, Stupski didn’t see his perfectionism as a problem. “In my view of the world,” he said, “I had to be aware of and vigilant of all concerns or threats to the company. I was in a state of constantly being on guard, always looking for small signs of problems.”

Stupski defines himself as a “definite Type A person. . . . One of the traits of Type A’s is perfectionism . . . . It comes from a desire to control all the outcomes, to control and to constantly push themselves and others to higher and higher levels of achievement.”

It’s common for perfectionists to see themselves as champions of quality, said Joseph A. Gibbons, a practice leader at the management consulting firm Towers Perrin in New York.

He described one perfectionist who “drives everyone who works for her crazy. There’s big turnover and low morale among her 15 or so employees. But her rationale is that she sets very high standards.” Gibbons said he intervened on behalf of her employees and told the manager: “ ‘You’ve got a problem. You’re much too demanding, and what you’re demanding is the 99.9th percentile and above.’ ”

Stupski also had to be told he was demanding too much.

“What eventually happened is that my subordinates had a quiet revolution,” he said. “They came to me and said I had to back off--had to give them more latitude, responsibility and authority--or the company couldn’t continue to grow. I consider it supportive revolution.”

He began trying to ease up, Stupski said, but then came the heart attack: “A big message to change my ways.”

Stupski did, and he gives much of the credit to a program run by Dr. Meyer Friedman, a San Francisco cardiologist who coined the Type A and Type B behavior classifications.

“He’s a new man; I can’t even describe how different,” Pottruck said of Stupski. “This is a different kind of guy . . . with a more patient view of life.”

It usually takes something momentous to persuade perfectionists of the need to change, said Lafferty of Human Synergistics. Many times, it’s illness or loss of a job. Sometimes it’s a wrecked marriage, or two.

“In general, perfectionism wipes out . . . any real concern for people and much enjoyment of life,” he said. “There’s no concern, no sense of intimacy with anybody, because the perfectionist can’t admit to being not perfect, can’t get close to anybody. This is a disability.”

And a perfectionist at work will be one at home. Joseph R. Weintraub, a professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., talks about “the Felix Unger syndrome,” referring to the ultra-fastidious character from Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”

Weintraub tells of an employee who went to a party at the home of a perfectionist boss. Fetching a beverage from the refrigerator, the employee found everything in it arranged in alphabetical order.

It’s that overcareful attention to detail that makes perfectionists such tough bosses, Weintraub said.

“A perfectionist is a micro-manager, very detail-oriented, overly concerned with mistakes,” he said. But, unlike Lafferty--who finds few redeeming qualities in the perfectionist--Weintraub sees some organizational benefits.

“One of the people I’d put on a good team is a perfectionist,” he said. “If you don’t have somebody watching quality, who’s concerned about exactness, sometimes you don’t get it. You want a pharmacist to be a perfectionist. I want my accountant to be a perfectionist . . . in the quality-control area, you want proofreaders and editors” to be somewhat perfectionist.

Managing a perfectionist employee? One technique to keep the perfectionism under control is to assign deadlines, Orioli said--”not just an ending date, but markers along the way.”

Weintraub advises: “If you have a perfectionist working for you, you need to be real patient. . . . [Perfectionists] need jobs with exact job descriptions so it can’t be fuzzy. You tell them, ‘Here’s five major duties, this is what’s essential, this is what’s not.’ ”

Perhaps the most difficult position is that of an employee of a perfectionist supervisor.

If you have a perfectionist boss, “then the right answer may be to get out from under,” Gibbons of Towers Perrin said. “It’s like having an alcoholic boss or absentee boss: There are no coping mechanisms, other than to quit.”

If you can’t leave, Weintraub added, be careful that on any assignment given by a perfectionist, you diligently prepare your case. “If you try to wing it,” he said, “you won’t make it.”

It’s difficult for the perfectionist to change, the experts say, but with persistence, troublesome behaviors can be modified so the perfectionism won’t get in the way so much.

Perfectionist supervisors, for example, need to be careful to set reasonable goals. “More is not a goal. More is more. It’s open-ended,” Gibbons said. “Better is not a goal; it’s open-ended. It’s dangerous.”

Hank Weisinger, a psychologist and consultant who teaches at UCLA and Cornell University, recommends the perfectionist start by changing “should” speech to “could,” to help lessen self-demands, and by engaging in activities “that you are not good in, to learn and experience that you don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it. They have to give themselves permission to fail, give their kids and employees permission to fail.”

Asked if therapy might help the perfectionist, Lafferty said: “Well, it wouldn’t hurt. But keep in mind, we find about one-third of therapists are perfectionists too.”


Test Yourself for Perfectionism

Rate yourself from 0 to 3 on each statement (0 means never, 1 is seldom, 2 is sometimes and 3 means always): * I feel no matter how well I do, it’s never enough. * I feel I must control or anticipate the future. * After success, I feel let down or disappointed instead of feeling good. * Others would say I’m too hard on myself and others. * I feel guilty when I not working. * I suffer from headaches on the weekend. * When I relax, I still think about work or things I must do. * I dominate conversations. * I become upset with standing in line, waiting in traffic, poor service and with anything even slightly out of order. Other people rarely come up to my high standards.

Scoring: 0-5: No way. You could care less about being perfect. 6-10: You’re not likely to have serious problems with perfectionism. 11-20: You have a tendency toward perfectionism and should be concerned.

21-29: You’re on the troubled road to perfectionism, but a detour is still possible. 30: You’re a perfect perfectionist and probably feel perfectly miserable.

Source: Human Synergistics International