Of the many obstacles to successful team collaborations, perfectionism and avoidance strike me as the most difficult to overcome or even control. At first thought they seem to be unrelated or even opposites of each other. But surprisingly, in some situations they're so closely tied together that we can justifiably regard them as two manifestations of the same dysfunction. Understanding their connection is most important when we're devising interventions. Let's consider how perfectionism and avoidance relate to each other using the planning activity to illustrate the connection.
"Analysis paralysis" is one of the best-known phrases identifying dysfunction associated with planning and analysis [McGlone 2000]. It captures the idea that a team has devoted so much time and effort to analyzing a task that it can no longer make significant progress toward its objective. The analysis activity has paralyzed the team, blocking forward progress.
Although that scenario undoubtedly does occur, the phrase "analysis paralysis" suggests that the inability to make progress is due to excessive planning and analysis. To solve the problem all we need do is stop planning, and to prevent the problem, all we need do is limit planning.
But consider this alternative explanation of analysis paralysis. Suppose the team is intimidated by the prospect of actually executing any plan that might attain the objective. One way to avoid what the team fears to undertake is to keep on planning and keep on analyzing — to keep perfecting the plan and perfecting the analysis. In this way, perfectionism provides a means of avoiding executing the plan, when the prospect of executing the plan — any plan — terrifies the team.
In this alternative "Analysis paralysis" is one of the
best-known phrases identifying
dysfunction associated with
planning and analysisscenario, it isn't the analysis that paralyzes. Rather it is the paralysis that leads to excessive analysis. We can observe analogous interlocking patterns between risk planning and risk aversion, and between aversion to conflict resolution and persistence of toxic conflict. (I must admit I haven't been able to devise rhymes for these other interlocking patterns.)
As a team member or as a manager interested in the team's success, distinguishing between cause and symptom is important when devising an intervention. For example, with analysis paralysis, suppose that the alternative explanation is valid, and the team is using analysis to avoid executing the plan. And suppose we devise an intervention that focuses on ending the extended analysis activity. Such an intervention will likely yield disappointing results, because bringing the planning to an orderly close will only compel the team to find another way to delay execution.
Whenever forward progress slows, perfectionism and avoidance are potential contributing factors. Deciding which of the two is more nearly causal is rarely easy. But considering all possibilities is a necessary preliminary to devising effective interventions. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Self-Serving Bias in Organizations
- We all want to believe that we can rely on the good judgment of decision makers when they make decisions
that affect organizational performance. But they're human, and they are therefore subject to a cognitive
bias known as self-serving bias. Here's a look at what can happen.
- Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what
and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
- The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we
tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable.
- The Stupidity Attribution Error
- In workplace debates, we sometimes conclude erroneously that only stupidity can explain why our debate
partners fail to grasp the elegance or importance of our arguments. There are many other possibilities.
- How Messages Get Mixed
- Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One
of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message.
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