I remember years ago, helping a client with her book, we were both runners and we shared our favourite running books and tactics. We laughed about how, sometimes we push ourselves so much it’s like the writing equivalent of an over-training injury.
Hmm, a writing injury,
I wonder what that would look like?
I recalled this conversation today as I read a piece about perfectionism and the risk of injury in athletes; and how, for every additional layer of mental challenge the athlete experienced, the risk of physical injury increased.
Surely Perfectionism Isn’t All Bad?
At some level, we know that our perfectionist tendencies are ‘bad’; that it feels icky to be constantly, chronically, poring over something, gnawing at it again and again, until the diminishing marginal returns become increasing negative returns.
Yet there’s also a part of us that feels that, somehow, maybe, we are creating a better piece of work with our striving? That it isn’t ‘bad’ to want something to be the best that it can be, that our standards are showing us there is a path to improvement, a higher place to aim for?
Yes and No…
What we’re not seeing in this deeply-rooted behaviour pattern is the conflation between the mental and the physical attributes of performance. Or, rather, the mental signals that improve performance and the mental signals that take us further away.
What we don’t see is that there are two, separate, yet similar, factors at play here, one of which leads to physical improvements through change in behaviour, and one of which is, at best, holding us back and, more likely, diminishing our performance and therefore our results — the leadership equivalent of an athletic injury.
We think it must all be relevant on some level, and, I promise you, it isn’t.
Perfectionism Takes Us Away From Perfection
There’s a world off difference between wanting to be better, pursuing excellence, seeking mastery, working at the practice, the skills, the mindset, and then attaching a sense of identity and well-being to imagined future results, or comparisons with other people.
There’s a world of difference between the person who looks to improve, who looks to what, practically, he or she can do to learn more and practice more, and the person who might also be doing those things, but is living in a cloud of stress and anxiety, somehow believing that a little worry is a good thing and feeling guilty for the mental freedom that comes from letting go of this concept.
Why wouldn’t we want to be better at the activities we’ve chosen to engage in? Why wouldn’t we want to do the best job we can do? Or play full-out when we’re in weekend warrior mode?
Wanting to be one’s best is very different to the cycle of perfectionism and self-criticism that will bring down performance and, ultimately, lead to dissatisfaction and stress.
It turns out, with the athletes, that for each increment of perfectionism, measured by the amount of mental ‘worry’ an athlete experiences, the risk of injury doubles. And because it’s a scale rather than a binary yes / no measurement, the higher on this perfectionism scale, the more the risk of injury increases.
I don’t quite know how we would quantify a performance injury in a leadership context. Of course, we see the extremes — the burnout, the stress, the inability to connect with colleagues, but the link between behaviour and results in human dynamics and in organisations is complex and hard to attribute.
What’s clear to me though, is that we get confused about what contributes to performance, and what detracts from it, and, therefore we’re unable to support ourselves and our colleagues in achieving it.
The athlete study put these on different axes — meaning we can do one but we don’t have to do the other — and that both have an impact on results.
It would be like driving a car and pressing down on the accelerator and the brake at the same time. Or, worse still, a racing driver heading for some broken glass and debris intentionally, rather than staying on the smooth side of the road.
The glass is on the road but we don’t have to drive in it. Just as we don’t have to stay lost in the negative mental fog of perfectionism. While it’s clear that we’ll cause damage to the car, maybe it’s less clear that we are causing damage to ourselves.
Imagine if we knew that when we went into work? Maybe at some level we already do?
While it might seem as if a little worrying is a good thing, the question to ask yourself is,
Is it really?
What if I did what I could and then let go of the results?
Let go of attaching my own sense of well-being to outcomes that might or might not happen?
Because performance injuries may not be so visible in the leadership field until they become so serious they take you off the field, but they exist and they’re very real. They not only decrease our sense of well-being, they decrease our ability to be our best.
If we could see that our personal ‘self’ is so little in charge of being our best, maybe that would open a space for more levity, and allow in a greater sense of joy to everything we do.
I’m sure we’d be much more fun to be around and, who knows, we might even do better!
Cathy Presland supports leaders, change-makers and organisations who want to make a difference with what they do. She has over two decades of experience in government and international organisations and more than ten years experience as leadership coach and consultant. Read more and download free courses here.