Failure is a universal human experience. We all know what it feels like - your stomach drops, heat creeps up your neck, tightness in your chest, a sudden increase in heart rate. We all know what it feels like because it happens to each one of us.
And yet, failure remains a taboo - a topic that is ignored and pushed down.
Humans are hardwired to avoid failure, stress, and discomfort. And yet, discomfort is an unavoidable reality of daily life. Reflecting on and proactively defining one’s relationship with failure and discomfort can be a truly transformational exercise in self-reflection.
Sign up for our webinar with FailureLab on 4/20/23: Destigmatize Failure & Combat Perfectionism in the Workplace
Why Failure and Perfectionism in the Workplace Matters
Considering the role of failure within an organization’s culture can be the key to improving a wide range of workplace areas. Including:
- Employee performance
- Reducing cultural fear
- Increasing productive creativity
- Reducing employee attrition, and
- Increasing overarching psychological safety
Workspace ecosystems bring additional complications to the “having a healthy relationship with failure” conversation. Money, office politics, power dynamics, personality conflict, and ego management are just a few of the extra factors at play.
So, for many, the workplace can exacerbate already sensitive and complicated feelings around failure.
People spend a lot of time at work. It's estimated that the average person will spend over one-third of their life at work - over 90,000 hours. While obvious, it is worth stating: of course, the culture of workplaces impacts the mental health and overarching well-being of individuals. This, in turn, impacts the health of the organization.
As chronic stress and burnout reach epidemic proportions, destigmatizing failure in the workplace is one of the most critically important initiatives for organizations and the individuals that work within them.
RELATED: Work Culture: What It Is, Why It Matters, & How to Build It
How Failure, Perfectionism, and Burnout are Related
How do these complicated feelings around failure express themselves in day-to-day life? And why is it important for organizations to consider our cultural fear of failure?
Fear of failure is directly tied to perfectionist behaviors, which have been directly correlated to chronic stress and burnout.
“Perfectionism and the fear of failure go hand in hand: They lead you to believe that success isn’t about doing something good, but about not doing something bad” (Arthur C. Brooks, 2021).
The Two Types of Perfectionism
In a meta-analysis of 43 studies on perfectionism and burnout, Andrew Hill & Thomas Curran assessed the relationship between “Multidimensional Perfectionism & Burnout.” In this analysis, Hill and Curran differentiated between two dimensions of perfectionism - perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns.
- Perfectionist strivings are associated with self-oriented striving for perfection and the setting of very high personal performance standards.
- Perfectionist concerns are associated with concerns over making mistakes, fear of negative social evaluation, feelings of discrepancy between one’s expectations and performance, and negative reactions to imperfections (Gotwals, Stoeber, Dunn, & Stoll, 2012).
Hill & Curran’s assessment concluded that perfectionist concerns, in significant contrast to perfectionist strivings, can be particularly harmful and are highly correlated with maladaptive outcomes. These outcomes include chronic stress, burnout, and mental health concerns.
“Perfectionistic concerns encapsulate a rigid self-evaluate style whereby individuals perceive their environment in dichotomous, all-or-nothing terms, overgeneralize negative events, ruminate about past failures, and have a strong need for self-validation (Hewitt & Flett, 1991, 1996).
Faced with failure, “perfectionists tend to respond more harshly in terms of emotions. They experience more guilt, more shame,” says Hill. These people also experience more anger and give up more easily. They have quite avoidant coping tendencies when things can't be perfect.” (Amanda Ruggeri, 2018)
The “current understanding of the perfectionism-burnout relationship is the harsh self-evaluative processes central to perfectionistic concerns are understood to fuel the perfectionism-burnout relationship.” (Hill & Curran, 2015)
How to Combat Perfectionism in the Workplace
Why does all of this matter? Positive growth-oriented cultures are good for bottom lines. Burnout is expensive. Employee attrition is expensive. What can be done to improve bottom lines, and increase employee satisfaction, effectiveness, and retention? What can organizations DO?
Research confirms that the behaviors and mental frameworks that underpin perfectionist concerns are key ingredients for chronic stress and burnout, and that fear of failure is one of the most significant antecedents of maladaptive perfectionism.
Organizationally, culturally reinforced fear of failure is something that can be improved through strategic behavioral training and intervention. We can do something about it.
What does this mean in practice? Leaders and organizational influencers must proactively model and reinforce behaviors such as intelligence and flexibility, emotional self-regulation, reasonable expectation setting, clear & respectful communication, and operationalized value reinforcement. It takes thoughtful deliberate learning, committed practice, and steadfast prioritization, but it can be done.
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Partner/COO/Director of Corporate Training
Go Ahead and Fail
By Arthur C. Brooks, Atlantic, February 25, 2021
Perfectionism Is Increasing, and That’s Not Good News
by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, HBR January 26, 2018
Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis
Hill, A. P. & Curran, T., Personality and Social Psychology Review, 06/23/2015
The dangerous downsides of perfectionism
By Amanda Ruggeri, BBC, February 20, 2018
Are perfectionistic strivings in sport adaptive? A systematic review of confirmatory, contradictory, and mixed evidence.
Gotwals, Stoeber, Dunn, & Stoll, Canadian Psychology, 2012
Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology
Hewitt & Flett, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1991
Personality traits and the coping process
Hewitt & Flett, Handbook of Coping, 1996