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When Failure is an Option

Optimize Blog - August 10, 2015 - 0 comments

Is being a perfectionist something to be admired or to be avoided? The personality trait – featuring excessively high personal standards coupled with harsh self-criticism – is usually associated with virtue, high achievement and being conscientious.
But researchers from York St John University and the University of Bath in the UK have found it is ‘largely destructive’ and can actually lead to poorer performance at work. The work, published just recently in the journal Personality & Social Psychology Review, is the first to aggregate the full effects of perfectionism.
It found the trait is closely associated with burnout – a syndrome associated with chronic stress that manifests as extreme fatigue, perceived reduced accomplishment and eventual detachment. The link is particularly strong in the work environment, which researchers suggest could be due to a ‘prevailing performance-outcomes focus’ in the modern workplace. Perfectionist tendencies are exacerbated when poor performance carries significant costs, leading to increased stress for individuals and a lack of innovation for organizations.
Dr. Andrew Hill, associate professor and Head of Taught Postgraduate Programs at York St John University, was lead author of the review. ‘Too often people confuse perfectionism with more desirable features such as being conscientious,’ Dr. Hill said. ‘Rather than being more productive, perfectionists are likely to find the workplace quite difficult and stressful. Our research suggests that if perfectionists are unable to cope with demands and uncertainty in the workplace, they will experience a range of emotional difficulties.’
Dr. Thomas Curran, lecturer in sport psychology at the University of Bath, added: ‘As a society we tend to hold perfectionism as a sign of virtue or high-achievement. Yet our findings show that perfectionism is a largely destructive trait. We suggest its effects can be managed and organizations must be clear that perfection is not a criteria of success. Instead, diligence, flexibility and perseverance are far better qualities.’
In recent years, companies including Google have established initiatives to counter perfectionism and drive up quality by rewarding staff for failure. This is a rather counter-intuitive approach and very hard to implement because of current typical corporate cultures and of course failure can be extremely costly to any organization. We come across leaders constantly that talk of failure as a positive and yet their behavior when failure occurs demonstrates that they say the right things, even grasp the notion conceptually and yet fail to behave appropriately – we have yet to come across failure as a KPI……
Failure is also often inextricably linked to the corporate disciplinary processes – they failed and therefore we need to manage them out…..right? But how much time is spent on learning from the failure and improving the overall organization’s capability? We suspect very little and the scenario becomes about the disciplinary process rather than the potential opportunity.
The reality is that there needs to be a greater acceptance of failure, and recognition that failure is an opportunity to learn, to evolve and to innovate. Treating failure in this mature and progressive fashion will help mitigate the negative effects associated with perfectionism and truly move the organization forward.

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