I’m grateful for comments from Arden Koehler, Habiba Islam, Alex Lawsen and Howie Lempel
A surprising number of effective altruists are perfectionists and/or suffer from imposter syndrome. Since I’ve done quite a bit of management at EA orgs, that means I’ve had some experience managing perfectionists and people who feel like imposters. Plus, I’m one, so I have experience from the other side too. I thought it might be useful to share some of the things that have seemed helpful for me in the past. Which is not to say that I always remember or find time to do all these!
One thing I want to say up front is that I’m really lucky to have been in organisations which deeply value the wellbeing of their staff. For example, at 80,000 Hours (as part of CEA) we have a budget for people to spend on interventions like therapy or seeing a psychiatrist, which are hard to get on the NHS and expensive to get privately. Having those kinds of supports in place has definitely made both managing and being a perfectionist easier.
Working with someone new
A key basis for good management is really understanding the people you’re managing. That way you know what they will need most and least support on and what types of support do and don’t work for them. So when I hire a new member of the team, I try to start off by asking a lot of questions to get to know someone’s work style and preferences. One of my colleagues gets people to fill in a copy of this doc. I also try to spend some social time with them in addition to work time, to speed up feeling comfortable and open around each other.
I think particularly important for managing perfectionists is building up credibility as being both honest and collaborative. As for being collaborative: for people who worry that they’re messing up, it seems especially important that their manager won’t judge them if they do. Instead, you want to feel that you’re ‘in it together’, and that if something goes wrong you can safely figure out together how to fix it.
Honesty might seem more surprising in this context. The reason it’s crucial is that perfectionists are especially likely to care about being told about anything they’re doing wrong. That way they don’t need to worry that they’re being silently judged for some slip they’ve made. Truly believing you’d tell them about problems you noticed is an important part of getting someone to trust you when you tell them things are going well.
Other things I try to do when someone starts on the team are:
- Give them a ‘cross team mentor’: someone on a different team who can act as a second point of contact for questions, and in whom they can confide if they’re finding something difficult and aren’t sure how to tell me.
- Facilitate them meeting other members of the team individually. Being the newest member of a team can be daunting, particularly if the new joiner is impressed by the rest of the team. Making sure the person actually chats to the rest of the team makes clear they’re all just people too.
- Ask them explicitly whether they have any concerns about joining the team, or how they’ll fit in.
- Try to demonstrate some understanding of both their strengths (so that they feel appreciated) and their weaknesses (so that they know I think they’re above the bar despite those and not blind to them). Doing the latter in a sensitive way is particularly hard, and I don’t yet feel I've found a great way to do it.
Getting calibrated on performance
If someone is typically biased in the direction of thinking they’re doing worse than they are, or are failing unless everything is going perfectly, it’s particularly important to help them to get a better calibrated sense of how things are going.
One way to get people to have a more accurate sense of their performance is by helping them to notice the ways in which things are going well in addition to ways things could go better. When I fill in my weekly review for my own manager, one of the questions on it is ‘what went well this week'. Having someone hold me accountable for genuinely thinking about which things went well in a week and dwelling on them at least long enough to write them down is helpful. For some people the prompt might need to be something more like ‘what went fine’ to get them to be happy generating things. Reading over someone’s weekly review and commenting on the things that went well (even just to say ‘good job!’) is useful for making clear that you agree this was a success.
Giving people a lot of honest feedback – including negative or not entirely positive feedback – can often be useful for improving their sense of how things are going. This often seems counterintuitive because it seems like rubbing salt in the wound to give an insecure person feedback unless it’s unalloyed positive. But telling someone honestly how things are going each week can help prevent a negative thought spiral about things going terribly, because you’re never more than 6 days from someone telling you how things were going (and usually the answer wasn’t ‘terribly’!). Knowing that someone would give you constructive feedback if they had it also means you can rely on them to help you improve, which is ultimately what perfectionists typically want.
Writing down plans and expectations ahead of time, and then later checking performance against those, can be helpful. Doing this prevents someone prone to raising the standards for themselves from doing so unconsciously. It can be tempting to look back on work you’ve done and rationalise why the standard should have been much higher than the one you achieved. Whereas looking forward to what you plan to do, you might actually be able to be more realistic about what a reasonable week/month/year looks like (of course there is also planning fallacy, but that’s another matter…). In that case, it’s worth setting in advance a realistic plan for a week, or writing out a role description to check your yearly feedback against.
Managers can also help their directs by contextualising feedback or the successes and failures of projects. When you’re the one who just missed your week’s goals or was told they didn’t write concisely enough, it’s hard not to dwell on that. Having a second person to help you zoom out can be great. That might look like, for example, reminding you how other projects this year have gone or thinking through how important writing concisely is for your job. Or it might look like discussing how to work on improving your writing or achieving weekly goals, to help you frame things as learning points rather than failures. If you set ambitious goals and then don’t make them, your manager can help by reminding you that you were being ambitious when you set them - if you always made your goals they wouldn’t be truly ambitious.
There are a bunch of things that can make a difference to how comfortable someone feels in a role which aren’t typically thought to be related to management, but which I think managers can have a big effect on. For example, some find coworking with others very much increases their productivity, but feel shy about asking new colleagues about doing so. Some people may even be interested in accountability in broader parts of their life. For example, some people feel far better when they exercise regularly but find it hard to motivate themselves to actually do it.
Part of enabling people to set up their environment to work well for them is simply making clear that you want that to happen. Talking to a counsellor about your perfectionism might seem like a frivolous use of money and time. It could make a big difference if your manager makes clear they actually think it’s a very sensible use of time and resources. (Though suggesting a report sees a therapist is the kind of thing you would only want to do if you knew them very well.)
Providing accountability can also make a big difference. For example, exercise takes time and effort. Another way I once provided support for a colleague was in their getting an ADHD diagnosis and treatment - it’s a huge amount of life admin (particularly for someone with ADHD!). Having someone who’s happy to check in with you every week about whether you took some action towards these can make a big difference. It’s extremely important as a manager not to overstep or make someone uncomfortable by discussing things outside your remit. But I’ve found that, when my manager and I have gotten to know each other well, they have been a great person to help me stay accountable for my life goals (like what exercise I’m doing…).
If someone feels they’re never doing as well as they should be, they’re particularly likely to care about making sure that they’re continuously learning and improving. On top of all the other reasons, that means it’s important to give people time and support for self-development.
It also means it’s important that the person can feel a sense of progress. Unfortunately, that’s not always a given – even when someone is in fact progressing. So it’s worth not only thinking through how to help someone learn, but also how to help them feel that they are learning.
At EA organisations especially, it’s all too easy to feel like it's selfish to spend time on self-development. That means that people worried about whether they’re doing their job well enough are very likely to deprioritise it. So as a manager you might need to not only make clear that you endorse learning time, but also provide accountability for taking it.
Some people are very pessimistic about their chances of improving, even if they agree that other people can improve at things. That can make it especially difficult for them to generate plans for self-development. A couple of things that have sometimes seemed useful to me in these kinds of cases are:
- Spending some time yourself thinking about things they could try, so that when you discuss ‘how to improve at x’ you can head off their automatic thought that ‘clearly there’s no way to improve at x’
- Brainstorming ways of improving at x together, with the explicit proviso that it’s plausible you won’t be able to come up with anything worth trying, and that it’s totally fine if none of the things generated get actioned
- Generally having a very ‘light touch’ attitude to self-development to reduce the pressure on something that already feels both important and difficult. For example:
- Starting small (eg ‘the goal is to exercise once this week’)
- Testing things out rather than going all in immediately (eg rather than ‘I’m going to walk to work from now on’ resolve to ‘try walking to work once and see how it goes’)
- Discuss how it’s possible nothing will change, and that’s fine (trying this was still worth it in expectation).
Putting it into practice: a weekly agenda
At the organisations I’ve worked for the default has always been to meet with your manager once a week for between 30min and an hour, and for the report to fill in a weekly review beforehand. I’ve found writing that review and having someone read over and comment on it consistently useful. Here’s the approximate agenda I’ve used:
General check in - so that my manager always has a sense of how I’m doing
How you did on last week’s goals
What went well (/OK) this week
What could have gone better this week, and how
This month’s goals - I find having these useful because it gives a sense of overall progress to set broader goals and check the extent to which I’m getting through them
Next week’s goals - helps to keep me accountable for what I think is realistic rather than changing the goal posts
A nice thing about this weekly template is that it makes for a reliable time for checking over things. You can also add other questions / prompts depending on what a person will find most useful
Our agendas usually have a prompt for two-way feedback, but some people prefer less frequent feedback. If you do have a feedback prompt, you might try wording it in a way that makes it easier for people to actually give feedback. For example, a question our team sometimes uses is ‘What’s one thing I or 80k could be doing better to make you more productive or happy?’.
There might be some particular thing a person is concerned they’re getting wrong, and therefore would like specific feedback on each week. I’m inclined to question and hedge everything, so my agenda with my manager currently has the question ‘Is Michelle being too negative / holding up plans by questioning things too much?’. Another person I know has found this question helpful, though you’d likely only feel happy answering it with a manager you knew very well: ‘How would this week look different if you fully accepted that you are a fallible, imperfect human who will never be perfect, that you make mistakes and that’s okay, and that there’s a lot of stuff that’s outside your control?’
You might also have things you check in on monthly. With one person I do checkins with, we look through their list of habits together once a month to see if anything should be dropped or added, and if they’re each working as intended. (I only remember to do this by sending myself a monthly email!)
I found the book Overcoming Perfectionism pretty practical and sensible (though a bit basic).
Work with me:
If the style of management I described appeals to you, you might be interested to know I’m hiring for advisors to join my team right now. More information on the role and how to apply can be found here.