Perfectionism, the killer of performance?
I would like to challenge this myth
Recently I was asked to contribute to an article, in a magazine aimed at professional women, discussing among other things, how perfectionism stops us being change-able?
As I am a realist/optimist, I started with the opinion that perfectionism is bad.
That endless, compulsive fixation on meeting a goal, whether it’s attainable or not, so often leads to disappointment and deflation
Who wants to be constantly disappointed? Not me
Who wants to spend time with people who are constantly disappointed with your performance? Not you!
I was supported in my opinion by my love and admiration of Brene Brown and her amazing book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”. I agree with her whole heartedly that being vulnerable can be far more effective than being a perfectionist. Being vulnerable allows us be open and honest when things aren’t working. We can be brave and declare freely that we are on the wrong track and we can even go so far as sharing our shortcomings with others because we don’t need to appear to be perfect.
Free to screw up and shout about it. Scary as it sounds, it’s incredibly liberating.
With all this in mind, there was still a niggling doubt
I know people, clients and friends who demonstrate perfectionist behaviours and perform brilliantly. Should they start being more vulnerable? Why should they stop what’s working? After all, it’s working.
I had to pay attention to the niggle, I set myself a goal to get to the bottom of it and wouldn’t give up no matter how hard it was (it’s the perfectionist in me!)
I came across an article in the Oxford Handbook of Sport and Performance Psychology by Joachim Stoeber, which stated that following many years of research, a consensus emerged stating that there are two different dimensions of perfectionism. One dimension is associated with concerns over making mistakes the other dimension is associated with striving for excellence, each showing different relationships with performance.
In its most simple terms, there appears to be a negative-associated perfectionism and a positive-associated perfectionism.
Negative Perfectionism – Concerns for making mistakes
Positive Perfectionism – Striving for excellence
This helped the niggle enormously, but we are not there yet.
Negative Perfectionism leads to Negative Success
People with high levels of negative perfectionism pay a high cost, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. They pay with high stress levels. They lose themselves in their determination to meet their expected targets, goals and outcomes. They need to succeed, mistakes are not allowed, failure is not an option.
We have enabled this culture of behaviours by being obsessed with success – but it’s unhealthy, I call it negative success. We can see evidence of it in people in all professions
Quite often this leads to people taking on more than their fair share of tasks to ensure the job gets done. After all, no one can do it as well as they can! They see mistakes as failings. Not only is there zero tolerance for their own mistakes, but there is no way they can accept mistakes from others – best to do everything themselves then. Welcome to “burn out”.
In fact the cost has been so great in terms of stress (all be it, self-inflicted) that we have had to develop new interventions such as mindfulness and wellness coaching to combat the symptoms. Necessity is the mother of all invention
This is exactly the type of perfectionism we want to avoid; in fact it can be seen as a sign of weakness in a managerial or leadership position. This is not a behavior to role model. The ripple cost to business is huge – stress related illness, absenteeism, depression, and the list goes on
Positive Perfectionism leads to Positive Success
People with high levels of positive perfectionism, striving for excellence, are likely to be confident, conscientious and competent. They perform consistently well. The key differentiator is that they have a different view of mistakes; they see them as learning opportunities. It sounds clichéd I know, however they experience a different emotional charge when they screw up . It’s a positive charge and it becomes a motivator to work smarter and its a healthy behavior. I call it positive success
Brilliant.So they see their mistakes (imperfections) as gifts.
I get it, the gifts of imperfection – thank you again Brene Brown
Niggle well and truly resolved.
In fact, studies have shown that if you have high levels of positive perfectionism behaviors that you are:
– more likely to be successful in your academic performance.
– more likely to win awards and be successful as a musician
– more likely to better perform in aptitude tests
All in all, more likely to perform better and achieve positive success
How to go from Negative Success to Positive Success
We all have behaviors that support both negative and positive perfectionism. Let’s agree that one does not exclude the other, they both have benefits when not in the extreme.
A key question is, what do you function with most?
The idea is to ensure that your behavior demonstrates higher levels of positive perfectionism than negative perfectionism
Let’s be real – this is not a switch that easily turns on or off We are talking about a mind-set shift.
One of the best coping mechanisms I have found for overcoming negative perfectionism is to look for levels of success, proof points along the way that you are on the right track. Strive for levels of excellence, steps that give you a sense of satisfaction without waiting for the end goal.
Set out what your ‘conditions of satisfaction (COS)’ are. Have check points or milestones along the way so you can experience positive emotional charges regularly. Agree and contract with yourself to accept the COS points as acceptable levels of excellence.
That way, if you reach a point and your conditions of satisfaction are not being met – you have the opportunity to change tack and reach higher, healthier and more realistic positive levels of success.
I use an excellent reframing tool in my coaching for this called TEFCAS. I’ve been using it for over 10 years now with clients at all levels from students studying for exams to CEO’s wanting to implement new business strategies.
TEFCAS is a success strategy; it’s the natural positive success strategy we were born with. We used it for learning to walk!. We need to unlearn the unhealthy negative success behaviours and this is a simple tool for doing just that.
TEFCAS stands for Trial, Event, Feedback, Check, Adjust and Success (Buzan & Miller 2004)
It always starts with Trial, ( trying/attempting something), this creates an Event. You now have information available to you about that event, Feedback. This tells us what worked and what didn’t work. A lot of us normally stop at this point – we focus on the mistakes in the feedback and become demotivated by our negative success.
The power in this positive success formula is what happens next.
Once you have Feedback data, you can process it, Check and remove what’s not true or beneficial to your progressing your goal. You are then ready to make Adjustments for the next trial/attempt. You have reached a level of Success. Accept your level of success as a condition of satisfaction point, feel the emotional charge. If you have not reached your goal, then repeat the formula again step by step, until you do so.
This positive success strategy aligns with positive psychology and is a natural motivator when striving for excellence.
The other thing you can do is seek out a positive perfectionist person. Ask them to coach or mentor you to assist with the behavioural change, to keep you honest and support the mind-set shift between negative and positive success.
If you already do this naturally – brilliant! Offer to coach or mentor someone in your work place that has high levels of negative perfectionism.
Is perfectionism a killer of performance? …
Only if it’s negative perfectionism
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