Paralysis by Perfectionism


When Thomas Edison was asked why he kept trying to make a new type of battery after failing so often, he replied: "Failure? I have no failures. No I have 50,000 ways it won’t work!"

How many of you fear failure? Maybe you don't want to look inadequate in front of the boss or your colleagues? Perhaps you want so desperately to get it 'right', that you triple-check everything? You may even think that others expect everything you do to be perfect, no mistakes, T's-crossed and I's dotted? 

Yes, attention to detail is key for gaining and maintaining credibility... and vitally important for some jobs! But when does this become perfectionism paralysis? When does your need to get everything absolutely perfect paralyse you from being creative, taking risks, or actually learning? Furthermore could your need for perfectionism also be paralysing those you lead? 

Paralysis by perfectionism is often underpinned by fear. To get a handle on this, tune into the voice of your perfectionist as if you were tuning into a radio station. What messages do you hear? Where are they coming from? Write down perfectionist messages you give yourself. By writing down these messages, you can immediately identify the expectations that aren't realistic. From here you can create new messages that are more realistic.

An example of this could be of someone new to a position. A message they may be telling themselves is "I've got to get this right, I can't show that I don't know something". A reframe of this may be "I come with a set of skills they need, I am learning-the-ropes and it's ok to ask questions when I'm unsure". Or "We've done that before and it didn't work" to "Things have changed since we last tried that, we may be able to use some parts of it now".

If you work with children, this reframing is even more important to try and break limiting thinking habits. An example may be a child who says "I'm no good at fractions" to a reframe of "I'm learning to do fractions", or "This is too hard" to "I'm finding this hard, who can I ask to help me?"

If you are in a position of leadership, pay attention to the language you use when asking people to do something differently. A change agent within a large organisation reflected that when they used the word "pilot" within a change initiative, people were more open to taking risks, "giving-things-a-go" and having an open-to-learning mindset. This simple reframing gives people permission to 'play'. 

So tune-into those perfectionist messages you may be giving yourself or others, and start to reframe them into more helpful messages. Because after all, as Winston Churchill once said,

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts".