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The Pratfall effect: Don't be perfect, just be competent

Are you a perfectionist?

 

Here's a short test you can take to spot the 7 warning signs of perfectionism:

 

  1. Unrealistic standards: Do you strive to live up to unrealistic expectations in all aspects of your life?

  2. Over-generalization: "I always mess up.“ Do you tie your self-worth to approval?

  3. Compulsive Behavior: Do you compulsively reorganise, preen or create endless drafts?

  4. Catastrophic Thinking: Do minor mistakes like slip-ups, typos, or bad haircuts feel like major disasters?

  5. Reassurance Seeking: Do you continuously seek validation from others?

  6. Compliment Dismissal: Do you struggle to accept compliments or celebrate wins. “It’s not my best but it’ll do.”

  7. Excessive Procrastination: Are you a closet procrastinator who delays starting or finishing tasks, convinced the time is never right.

 


Perfectionism in the workplace

 

In school, we are taught that preparation is crucial for achieving success in various tasks and projects. It's true that thorough preparation helps us excel in tests, presentations, and group work. Perfectionist tendencies can be beneficial in the early stages of your career. When you strive for perfection and put in extra effort to prepare and deliver outstanding work, it helps you become a highly valued and irreplaceable member of your team.

 

But eventually perfectionism can become a liability says Ellen Taaffe, Assoc. Prof. at Kellogg. Here's how:

 

  • We hide instead of shine. Our focus on preparation causes us to take a backseat while others take the spotlight and full credit.

  • It stalls our personal development. Focusing on perfection through preparation prevents us from developing the ability to think on our feet and respond based on our knowledge and frameworks, rather than relying on in-depth analysis.

  • It's an unhealthy coping mechanism. Over time, we learn to rely on extensive preparation, it becomes our coping mechanism. And when we don't have enough time to prepare, anxiety creeps in, and we paralyze. We miss out on opportunities that are presented to us.

  • We don't get to become good leaders. Being overly prepared may label us as valuable team members but not effective leaders. Leaders must make decisions with limited information. When we always depend on extensive preparation, we miss out on learning how to move forward with partial information and the subsequent success or failure. Moreover, our high standards may lead us to overly criticize and micromanage those we lead, with disastrous effects.

  • There's an opportunity cost. The workload can become overwhelming, as we dedicate extensive time and effort to preparation. This excessive preparation may consume our time, leaving little room for anything else. it may even lead to burnout.



Don't try to be perfect

 

Although anyone can fall into the trap of perfectionist tendencies, women are often more susceptible.

  

Breaking free from the perfectionist trap involves adjusting the way we make decisions.

 

Here are four strategies to help with that:

 

  1. Have a decision-making plan: If fear of failure paralyzes you, establish criteria for decision-making and follow a systematic process that allows you to move forward with imperfect information and let go of the need for flawless results. Seek input from others as part of this process. Remeber, a good decision is a decision well made - no one can predict the result.

  2. Learn from your past decisions: Take regular time to reflect on your accomplishments, risks you took, setbacks you overcame, and lessons learned. You can do this in the form of a decision journal. This practice helps you appreciate your achievements and learn from your experiences, without letting self-criticism bring you down.

  3. Reframe success: When transitioning into a new role or position, it's important to redefine what success means, in a way that's realistic. Adjust your goals and make sure they are not overwhelming. Stay aware of our cognitive tendency to overestimate what we can achieve in one day and underestimate what we can achieve in a month.

  4. Be kind to yourself: Cultivate a growth mindset and allow yourself to prioritize progress over perfection. Practice self-compassion and empathy. You’d probably do the same for others, so why not for yourself?

 

Mistakes can work for you

 

When we think of someone as competent, any small mistake they might make can work in their favor. Why? It allows us to humanize them and in doing so, it makes us like them more. They are no longer a "superhuman" with whom we can't connect.

 

Ths psychological effect is known as the Pratfall Effect and was first studied by social psychologist Elliot Aronson in 1966. Aronson speculated that people considered “superior” by others could become more attractive upon committing a small pratfall.

Consider the famous film actress Jennifer Lawrence if you will. Widely touted for her talent and beauty, she is also known for her gaffes, such as falling down at red carpet events and speaking brashly in interviews. Yet Lawrence is commonly considered a “down-to-earth” celebrity and regularly celebrated for her likeability.

 

All you need to be is competent, not perfect.



Question for you

 

What is one area in which you overprepare? What can you do today to free yourself from perfectionism? And what can you do tomorrow to build on that?

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