By: Jeff Szymanski, author of The Perfectionist's Handbook (Wiley, 2011)
When I went house shopping a few years ago I experienced a recurring process in my head. On the way to each open house I would start evaluating the neighborhood. As soon as I walked into the front door I would see things I liked and didn’t like. As I left each house I would have a list in my head of the advantages and disadvantages of each property.
Soon I began constructing the “perfect” house in my head: “I want the layout of the house from the second one, the backyard of the fourth one, the price of the first one…” and so on.
The Problem with Perfectionism
Sound familiar? Looking for the characteristics of a good employee can be very similar. “Can we get Bob’s enthusiasm, with Kate’s skill level, and John’s starting salary?” The answer is no. It is seductive to imagine the perfect solution (i.e., the perfect job candidate): someone who will eliminate all possible risks and hiring mistakes. And, in fact, your perfectionism can result in procrastination and an inability to make a final choice in your hiring .
While I’m not suggesting you rush the hiring process, there are times when action is far more effective than inaction. Beware of the unhealthy perfectionist trap of believing that thinking about a problem and doing something about it are one and the same. My rule of thumb: Effective problem solving involves reflection and consideration, followed up with action.
Steps to a Healthier Hiring Process
These steps will help you balance your perfectionism tendencies in how to hire an employee:
1. Perfectionism encourages you to look for the candidate with only positives and no drawbacks. Since you won’t be able to find that candidate, instead prioritize attributes you think are the most important to focus your hiring decision. For example, what are your top five "must haves" in a candidate? What are five qualities or job skills you would prefer to see, but could live without? Then score each candidate on these dimensions.
2. Perfectionism can sometimes encourage a “if you want it done right do it yourself” mentality. However, only one set of eyes on a candidate might miss something important. Assemble a team to help you with the interview process. Include those who will be working closely with the new employee as well as individuals who can accurately assess their skill level. If you are in charge of the final hiring, don’t abdicate your role as final decision maker, but be open to perspectives from your hiring team.
3. If you have hired candidates for similar positions in the past, have you gone back and looked at your good hires and not so good? There may be information to be had in learning from your own hiring mistakes. Unhealthy perfectionism has us criticizing ourselves for mistakes that we make and can inhibit this very important process. However, if we understand the important information to be had in our previous mistakes, then we can learn from them and implement this new knowledge the next time around.
4. Be on the lookout for unhealthy perfectionistic job applicants in the interview process. Qualities in particular to look out for? Excessive self-promotion, a track-record of not wanting to take risks and typically taking a conservative route, and an unwillingness to discuss or talk about mistakes made.
While every applicant is going to try to put their best foot forward, an unhealthy perfectionist will appear a little too slick, somewhat brittle and too eager to please. Healthy perfectionists, in contrast, will appear confident, collaborative and have a sense of humor about or something they learned from mistakes they have made. As a result, they will not avoid talking about mistakes.
A new employee is a big investment. In many cases there is a lot riding on picking the right person. However, don’t let unhealthy perfectionism leave you paralyzed in trying to find the ideal candidate.
Jeff Szymanski, PhD, is author of The Perfectionist's Handbook (Wiley, 2011); the Executive Director of the International OCD Foundation; a Clinical instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School; and a Clinical Associate in Psychology at McLean Hospital. For more information, please visit jeffszymanski.com.