In the last blog I described the perfection loop that we can easily fall prey to without realizing this “failure set up” pattern. In this blog I will explain the loop more and how to bust it. This is another excerpt on one of the 108 strategies in my Leading with Emotional Intelligence: Strategies for Building Confident and Collaborative Star Performers book.
1. Perfection as an Expectation: The goals you set are very lofty and made without the benefit of critical thinking or truly examining their feasibility. “Perfection” rationalizes that you need to have stretch goals and to push yourself and set goals that are extreme, unrealistic, unattainable, and without the slightest margin of error. A thorough assessment of what it takes to reach them is not made, and you are doomed to complete the loop. Most of the time the effort, resources, and training you need to accomplish the goals are not taken into consideration.
In Pure Genius, Dan Sullivan talks about the differences between ideals and goals and how we often evaluate ourselves against the ideal and always fall short. He uses the example of the horizon, which, even though we can see it, doesn’t really exist. If we chase the horizon, it keeps moving back and we never reach it. Sullivan recommends that we ask ourselves where we have come from and assess our progress in achieving our goal. This evaluation will leave us feeling better about our progress. If perfectionism is not curtailed, it will thrust you into the endless Perfection Loop, which is like being thrown into rapids where the force of the water controls where we go.
2. Stress and Pressure Going into the Task; Procrastination: Extreme expectations influence your state of achieving this goal. Pressure, anxiety, and stress accompany the preparation for the task and can have an impact on the focus and creativity needed to move toward the unattainable goal. On an unconscious level, you know that the task is overwhelming and that you have set yourself up for failure. This only adds to your anxiety. One typical response is procrastination disguised as giving you time to get ready. It’s going to take all your effort so “planning” is actually worrying, “preparing” is actually avoiding, and “resting” is actually putting off. All of this leads to more procrastination. This stage of the loop compounds your performance even more.
3. Less-Than-Expected Performance: The task is completed, and of course it is not at the level you expected. You could have done more, done a better job, started it sooner, and finished it faster. Repetitive “more, better, faster, more, better, faster” is a sign of a faulty evaluation system.
4. On Your Case, on Others’ Cases: Your self-talk has pulled the whipping stick out. It is easy and habitual, and many leaders don’t realize that their internal talk turns into the same conversation, but it can show up out loud when you communicate with your direct reports.
- “Why didn’t I get this done sooner?” becomes “Why didn’t you get it done sooner?”
- “How could I be so stupid?” becomes “What were you thinking?”
- “I am not cutting it and should have done a lot better.” becomes “You are not cutting it or meeting my expectations.”
Inside your own mind you are usually unaware of how harsh this kind of negative self-talk sounds. When you speak that way to others, your harshness can be very demotivating and detrimental. These automatic responses become who you are to the people you lead and have unintended negative consequences and repercussions.
5. Less Confident About Yourself and Others: There is less self-trust and trust in others as the loop continues and the estimation of success is less likely. Confidence is reduced.
6. Must Do Better Next Time: As a solution for stress and frustration, a leader makes the decision that, next time, “I’ll try harder, start sooner, and do better.” Now there is another set-up put into place for the next task, to unfortunately generate the same unrealistic expectations…and the loop goes on.
How to Counter the Perfection Loop
To counter the debilitating and quicksand effects of the Perfection Loop, you have to develop new behaviors early in the first or second steps–before the momentum sucks you in or down. Small changes at the beginning and throughout will help you break this pattern. To begin, think of a current expectation and answer the following:
- How realistic and attainable are your expectations?
- Do you thoroughly assess your expectations and plan for what it will take to get the task done?
- Rate yourself on a 1-10 scale with 10 representing your most realistic expectation. What is your rating?
- To what degree does perfection run your life or have control over you? Rate yourself from 1-100%.
- What is the first step you need to gain some control?
- Look at the Procrastination’s Seduction chart. Which rationale do you use the most?
- What would be the best counter to the statement, “No, I need to develop a realistic plan and spend more time planning”?
- Is your evaluation system faulty?
- How is it faulty? (e.g., too rigid, uncompromising, etc.)
- What percentage of the time are you on your case after a performance?
- Refer back to some of the strategies from Being on Your Case vs. Being on Your Side to redirect your evaluations and self-talk.
- Once you have turned your evaluation into a learning situation, what is your plan for not getting into the Perfection Loop next time?
- How can you get others to support you?
- Who can give you feedback when they see you stuck in the loop?
- Will you listen?
You can find more strategies like this in my book, Leading with Emotional Intelligence.