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:
- The Focusing Illusion in Organizations
- The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility
in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
- 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.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive
biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
- Effects of Shared Information Bias: II
- Shared information bias is widely recognized as a cause of bad decisions. But over time, it can also
erode a group's ability to assess reality accurately. That can lead to a widening gap between reality
and the group's perceptions of reality.
- 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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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.