Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson joins Ofosu and Leah to discuss why so many of us have perfectionistic tendencies. She explains how giving ourselves permission to fail can actually lead to more success.
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OFOSU: Hey, what's up. I'm Ofosu Jones-Quartey
LEAH: And I'm Leah Santa Cruz.
OFOSU: And we are the meditation coaches on Balance. And this is our weekly show. Well Balanced. Today, we are talking about perfectionism. Oh yeah. And how it comes up for us. Uh, for many of us at work and at home.
LEAH: I said, uh-oh, because I could definitely, um, relate to having the perfectionism critic pop-up for me.
OFOSU: Yeah. Likewise, it's one of those things that I think a lot of people feel like they’re sort of suffering with in silence, but I think it's true for so many people. So I'm excited for us to be able to connect with our guests today. Uh, she's a great person to help us dive into this with, um, so let's bring her into the conversation right away.
Her name is Amy Edmondson. She is a renowned professor of leadership and management at the Harvard business school and the author of a book called, The Fearless Organization, Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth.
OFOSU: Hey Amy, thanks so much for joining us. Thank you.
AMY: Thank you so much for having me - great topic. So happy to be here.
LEAH: So, uh, Amy, I'm curious, how has perfectionism shown up in your research?
AMY: Where do I begin? So, first of all, there's a fundamental truth. To err is human, right? I mean, we're all gonna make mistakes, whether we like it or not. Now, I think we all want to do our best to minimize certain kinds of mistakes, but we have to learn how to be comfortable with ourselves in terms of fallibility.
We're fallible human beings. That's a given to me, the only question is, can you become comfortable with that? And this is closely related. I mean, it's, it's actually the heart and soul of my research in some ways, because I study work environments where people Because they're able to be comfortable with themselves and with their teams about the fact that things will go wrong, then they're better equipped to catch and correct things that go wrong before anything really bad happens.
So the real insight here is that perfectionism gets in the way of what I call psychological safety. It gets in the way of smart experiments. And it's probably worth mentioning that perfectionism reflects a kind of performance mindset, right? I'm supposed to be perfect, not a learning mindset or a growth mindset, and that's just not, you know, it doesn't reflect an accurate view of reality today - which is complex and uncertain and fast changing. And so we've got to be fast learners, not perfectionists.
OFOSU: I mean, can you say a little bit more about these two fascinating words, psychological safety? What does that mean to you in general?
AMY: Well, I have defined it and studied it as a description of the climate, it describes an environment where you really do believe you can bring your full self to work.
And I guess this is true at home too, where you believe you can speak up with what you observe or what you're worried about. You believe you can ask for help when you're in over your head. I want to be very clear about this. It's not the norm. Most people, I think in most workplaces and maybe even most families are not so psychologically safe, right? They think they need to hold back, wait and see. Let's just see which way the wind is blowing before I say what I think is true, or before I ask for help or share a crazy idea.
LEAH: Knowing this, where do you think that this, um, desire to be perfect comes from?
AMY: Oh, so many forces fuel our desire to be perfect.
I think it starts probably in elementary school, maybe even earlier, where we get so many messages from parents, from teachers, and even from peers that the valued people are able to get the right answers or to do something perfectly or to color inside the lines. You just want to be one of the valued people.
You internalize the message that I need to look good. Even though internally, I might not feel worthy, but I need to look as though I am or else somehow, you know, I'm going to get rejected by the group. And that would be horrible. So I say it comes from our socialization, but of course it also comes from our evolutionary heritage where, you know, thousands of years ago, rejection by the group could literally be uh, life-threatening you could die of exposure or starvation or both. It is a primal fear. In fact, we call it a prepared fear. It's one of those fears in our brains. There's a module for it, right? It's already there just waiting to be activated. And I think perfectionism is a kind of guard against that fear, right? It's not a very effective one, but it's a tool that we use or a tendency that we gravitate toward to protect ourselves. Right. If I, if I'm perfect, if I don't make any mistakes, if I get everything right, if I look good, then I'll be okay. People will accept me.
OFOSU: Wow. So fascinating. And going back to this, the environment of psychological safety, I'm curious, how did you discover or get interested in the idea that teams that can embrace each other in a safe way actually will perform better or do better?
AMY: Well, you know, ironically and appropriately, I think it was a mistake.
It was actually a big failure story. So I set out as a second year graduate student to study the relationship between medication error rates in hospital-based care delivery teams. And of course my hypothesis was the good teams, according to the team, would have lower error rates. They'd be better at coordinating and collaborating and all, all that good stuff.
Unfortunately, my hypothesis failed and failed dramatically in that the data suggested at first glance that not only were better teams, not making fewer mistakes, but they actually had higher error rates. Wait a minute! You know, that, that can't be right. So it suddenly occurred to me, you know, hours into pulling my hair that for my own perfectionism being so very wrong, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe there was a reporting bias here in the following way. Maybe the better teams, people who really enjoyed working together and felt comfortable with each other, were more able and willing to report the things that went wrong.
We step back and think, you know, in a complex setting like that, it is a given that things will go wrong. What's not a given is whether people will talk about them. And so to make a long story short, I ultimately was able to show with pretty strong evidence that that was likely true in that setting. And then in subsequent settings, when I was trying to ask that question deliberately, rather than by accident, I was able to show that indeed there were profound differences across teams, even in the same organizational contexts, like a hospital, or like Google that at the team level, the interpersonal climate for candor was really variable, right? Your team might be great. And then another team across the hall on another floor might be just tiptoeing around each other.
LEAH: Wow! That's an interesting finding. I can relate to what you're describing because when I was starting to teach meditation, I formed a group at my house where I just felt okay having a safe place to fail or mess up or just learn my voice. And it really helped me as a new teacher, starting out to feel comfortable in what I was sharing and to get feedback from people which I asked for. But I know a lot of people whose listening might not be a meditation teacher or might not be proactive about doing something like that.
But from your research, I'm curious, what are some ways that we can build an environment where it's okay to make mistakes? Or maybe if we're in one that's not okay for that how can we come more comfortable with ourselves to do that?
AMY: Such an important question. And you know, the first thing that comes to mind is doing something new.
So your story was a story of doing something new, right. I decided to see if I could become a good teacher of meditation practices, you're not supposed to be good right off the bat, right? So in anything new you want to do, there's a learning curve. And that's a nice word for saying you're going to be lousy at first.
So, um, what I just said was a framing statement. Like when I say you're going to be lousy at first, when you try something new it's a reminder that it's okay to be lousy at first because that's the nature of it. So I call this framing and it's one of the things you can do and it's stop and say it aloud something about the reality of what you're trying to do right.
Say. I've never done this before. Huh? That's interesting. You know, if you've never done this before, what are your expectations about how good you should be? Oh, it should be perfect right now. That's obviously silly. So that's sort of one thing: it frames it accurately as the kind of thing where, um, a learning curve is expected and feedback is needed and all of that.
And then the second thing I say is force yourself to get curious, because if you get curious, you'll ask questions. When you ask questions, you are explicitly inviting other voices in. Of course, that's what you're doing here in this setting, you're asking me questions. And then you're pausing to listen to the responses.
And so your questions, which are good questions, make it safe for me to speak up and to speak up honestly, I don't feel I'm imposing my thinking on you. So that same insight applies to everyday life for your team at work or anything, which is just forcing yourself to ask more questions and get genuinely interested in what others have to say.
Now that might not make your psychological safety higher, but it makes theirs higher and it becomes reciprocal. And then the third thing is. Monitor your responses, right? Someone, maybe someone who's been quiet for a while speaks up and you say, oh, that's a stupid idea. That's probably not going to contribute to psychological safety either for them or for anyone else in the vicinity.
And so, you know, pause to think about it with some empathy. What would you want to hear if you just went out on a limb and shared something crazy or personal or possibly wrong, and you'd want to have at least some appreciation and welcoming to what you said.
OFOSU: So, let's see if I can remember this frame things accurately, be deliberately curious and monitor your responses.
OFOSU: BAM! Thank you so much for that. Cause I think it's super helpful for our listener and it's definitely helpful for me. I feel like these are immediately applicable and Leah kind of touched on this, that what we're talking about here extends beyond the workplace into our general relationships. I mean, I know for a fact that as a first-generation American, I share this difficult solidarity with many other first-generation kids who sort of felt like they could not make a mistake in their household.
And perhaps, you know, I've probably perpetuated a little bit with my own kids, like just an unreasonably high standard of performance that probably creates an environment that's not always psychologically safe. Do you have any thoughts on how this can extend into our relationships? You know, our interpersonal relationships, our family dynamics, our friends, et cetera.
AMY: Absolutely. I mean first of all, I want to say it does extend into our relationships. And second, I want to acknowledge that yes, the stakes can feel higher for some people than others, you know, first-generation college students, for example. So just a huge challenge, um, where all of that pressure and all of those messages that get internalized really contribute to feelings of risk aversion, and that risk aversion can get in the way of growth and advancement. And I think that's true in relationships too. If you feel very anxious about being accepted, um, let's say in a romantic relationship, a new romantic relationship or a potential romantic relationship, you will be reluctant to say things that reveal who you really are, that you're trying to put on a front. And ultimately of course, that's so counterproductive because as we get to know someone, a new friend, a new romantic partner, you eventually have to either be yourself or it's not going to be a very satisfying relationship.
And you know, when do you start, when do you shift from here's the show to here's who I really am?
OFOSU: Yeah, just, um, yeah, you know, I'm just like uh -
LEAH: Reflecting on our own relationships.
OFOSU: Yeah in real-time. This has been such a great conversation. Um, we know that you have spent years, uh, looking into how to help people feel open to making mistakes at work and even outside.
And so how have you been able to apply this approach to teaching into your work in general?
AMY: Well, I'm smiling because there's two answers to that. And one is, I think I do a pretty good job applying this to my teaching. I think of the classroom as a setting where I can hold people to very high standards and still make it very safe. It's safe to make mistakes safely, to express an unpopular view. And by the way I respond, which is appreciative and forward looking by the way I encourage and reward other students' responses - I think I can sort of sustain that type of environment because I really believe that's the best learning environment.
But the second answer is, in my own life. I'm not very good at it. Um, you know, I'm still caught up in this. I should be better and I should be perfect and I should not make mistakes, even though intellectually. I know that's just dead wrong.
LEAH: I love that you feel psychologically safe enough to admit that to us!
AMY: That's a good point!
That's a good point. I might have some of these tendencies, but I can step back and laugh at them for sure.
LEAH: Humility. Right? We try to do a lot of that in this show, because you know, we're all humans on the same journey together. Even when we have the tools, we don't always utilize them the way that we'd like.
AMY: Almost never, but we, Hey, we're on a learning curve and this particular learning curve is a lifelong one.
LEAH: I think that's a beautiful ending to this conversation of learning how to be okay with ourselves.
Be more comfortable with ourselves, which is maybe admittedly like the hardest thing to do.
AMY: It is really hard. Uh, I'm better at writing about it than doing it.
OFOSU: Yeah, I can totally relate. Well, this was a perfect conversation. So bam.
AMY: There’s no such thing as a perfect conversation, but I love it.
LEAH: Thanks for talking with us today, Amy.
AMY: It’s been such a delight to do so.
OFOSU: Thank you so much, Amy.
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OFOSU: All right. That was Amy Edmondson. She's the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard business school. And she's the author of a book called, The Fearless Organization. Please go check it out if you'd like what she had to say.
LEAH: And we want to say thanks to you for joining us. And remember, don't let trying to be perfect get in the way of being good enough.
OFOSU: That's right. Don't let perfection be the enemy of the good.
LEAH: And before we go, I want to quickly mention something that’s going on in Balance, our meditation and sleep app. We’ve extended our 65-percent-off lifetime membership sale for a limited time. That means you get access to everything we offer in the app FOREVER, without any recurring charges.
OFOSU: First of all, I think it’s a really sweet deal just because my own practice has been a lifelong practice and so to be able to have something like Balance available forever is amazing!
LEAH: I agree and we’re constantly adding new meditations all the time. You can download Balance at balanceapp.com. And if you already have it, you can find the sale on the today tab.
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OFOSU: All right. Hey, y'all remember that we come out with new episodes every Monday, so please be sure to subscribe or follow on your favorite podcast app to get notified when our next convo goes live until then take care and we'll see you soon.
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