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Optimising Human Performance


EPISODE 4:  The Perfection Trap

Find the Episode HERE

This week, Martin & Jonpaul are joined by Dr Thomas Curran, a world-leading expert on perfectionism. They break down perfectionism to understand what it really is and  challenge some of the myths that link perfectionism with high performance.  How we can prevent perfectionism from hindering our health, wellbeing, productivity and performance?

Guest, Cast & Crew

Dr Thomas Curran is an Associate Professor at the London School of Economics. He’s a world leading expert on perfectionism whose work has featured in Time magazine, the Harvard Business Review, the New Scientist and the Times of London, to mention just a few. In 2018, he gave a Tedmed talk that’s well worth a watch, entitled ‘Our Dangerous Obsession With Perfectionism is Getting Worse’ and just last year, he published his debut book ‘The Perfection Trap’.  

Hosted by Martin Jones & Jonpaul Nevin https://www.ophp.co.uk 

Edited by Bess Manley

Produced by WavellRoom https://wavellroom.com/audio/ 



  • ‘Connected’ by John Spencer.

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01:25 Introducing Tom

04:07 Perfectionism and its Impact

08:04 The Influence of Social Media and Secularization

11:25 The Experience of Perfectionism

12:48 Perfectionism and Mood Disorders

20:48 Debunking the Notion of Healthy Perfectionism

24:09 Perfectionism in Covert Environments

26:00 Different Types of Perfectionism

26:42 Other-Oriented Perfectionism

33:25 Creating a Culture of Psychological Safety

37:41 The STOP 5 Model for Reflection and Learning

40:01 Perfectionists and Withholding Effort

52:25 Reframing Perfectionism as a Hindrance

Up Next

Join us for an eye-opening discussion with Professor Rob Orr, director of the Tactical Research Unit at Bond University. We discuss the relationship between physical fitness and cognitive performance and uncover the value of an individualized approach to training.


Hello and welcome to the Optimizing Human Performance podcast. I’m Martin Jones, a Human Performance Specialist, Researcher and Educator. And I’m John Paul Nevin, a former Royal Army Physical Training Corps Instructor turned academic. Each week we talk to world leading experts about how to unlock the full potential of those who operate in high stress, high stakes environments.

We discuss the latest science, innovative strategies, practical wisdom and inspirational stories in the rapidly evolving world of human performance optimization. The Optimizing Human Performance podcast is produced in partnership with the Wavell Room and the Tactical Athlete Performance Center at Buckinghamshire New University.

This week we welcome Dr Thomas Curran onto the podcast. Tom is an Associate Professor at the London School of Economics. He’s a world leading expert on perfectionism whose work has featured in Time magazine, the Harvard Business Review, the New Scientist and the Times of London, to mention just a few.

 And last year, he published his debut book, The Perfection Trap. In this episode, we break down perfectionism to understand what it really is, and challenge some of the myths that link perfectionism with high performance.

We discuss how we can prevent perfectionism from hindering our health, well being, productivity, and performance. Let’s dive in.

[00:01:17] Martin: Welcome to the optimizing human performance podcast. Tom, I’d like to open up by handing over to you just to introduce yourself.

[00:01:25] Tom: Thank you so much for the introduction. I will introduce myself by saying I’m Tom Curran. I’m a associate professor at the London School of Economics. And my research specialty is the personality characteristic of perfectionism. And I’m really interested in what it is, what it does to us, and why it seems to be the modern zeitgeist.

[00:01:44] Martin: modern zeitgeist. I like that. So we’ve known each other for How long now, Tom? It’s got to be 10 years. And at that point, you were doing a little bit of stuff in perfectionism, some motivation research. So how has your career brought you to this point that you’re at now?

[00:02:02] Tom: I think it’s a dream. I actually don’t think it’s real. I’m not sure what’s happened. I came to work with Martin from a postdoc in Australia. I had a great year. And, I think I went to sleep and woke up at LSE. no, I’m joking. Of course for me, it was just about curiosity.

As you mentioned, I was doing some work in perfectionism. I was applying it to the area of sport. and. I don’t know, really, I just got a bit of an itch I always thought quite big, like I was really interested in things outside of sport, really interested in economics, sociology, anthropology, like I read really widely and I don’t know, II just saw something in the data and all around me that was telling me this is a Bit of a zeitgeist right now, perfectionism, not something that just we see in sport and it’s like curiosity, but actually like everybody has some kind of perfectionism and it seems to be affecting a lot of people.

And I wonder whether this is something that. At a societal level is growing. So that was really like my big epiphany, if you want to call it that. And I did a meta analysis that showed it was rising. and that’s where it all started to snowball after then, because that got a lot of media coverage.

I was in a lot of big publications. I was on TV, radio, did a TED talk, which was crazy. And then I got a book deal. So,uh, all in all, and then ended up at LSE in the middle of all that. So look, 10 years, been an absolute whirlwind, not really sure what happened. but ultimately I think it was just one big idea that kind of sparked everything else, and I guess I was really lucky.

[00:03:34] Martin: Yeah, that’s awesome. And I will, I’ll do a shout out now and say that Tom’s book is probably the second best perfectionism book I’ve ever read. Not, not, not quite the best. I don’t want to make you too much of a perfectionist by thinking it’s the best one,

[00:03:46] Tom: Well, nobody’s perfect.

[00:03:47] Martin: up there, Tom. No, but seriously, it’s probably my favorite perfectionism book.

It’s an excellent text. It’s an excellent

[00:03:54] Tom: Thanks man. 

[00:03:55] JP: Guys, on that, because obviously both of you come from psychology backgrounds, obviously I come from a strength and conditioning background, so a bit different. So how would you define perfectionism to the layman? how would you explain this construct? What is it? 

[00:04:07] Tom: it’s one of those things where so if you go and ask Different people in the perfectionist literature they’ll give you a slightly different answer to this I think that’s the first thing to bear in mind There’s so much debate in perfectionism about what it is Whether it’s good where it’s healthy where it’s not whether we should be promoting it where we shouldn’t be promoting it and that debate rages I’ll tell you where I am I’m very much in the camp that it’s a very debilitative trait.

And the reason is because I take the perspective that perfectionism comes from a place of deficit. That is where perfectionism can only come from. Uh, so a place of lack, a sense that I need to be more, I don’t have enough. Scarcity, essentially, is its root. and from that place of scarcity comes an overcompensation.

A need to feel like we’re worth something that we’re not. flawed, that people recognize us and value us. And so that’s where perfectionism starts to grow. And,and we see it manifest in many different ways, but typically there’s two main strains. The first is, excessively high standards, but also fused with very harsh self criticism when we haven’t met those standards.

So that’s typically how I would describe it to the lay person.

[00:05:13] Martin: Hmm. I think that that’s, that’s really interesting. Just today I was talking to somebody about the characteristics of elite performance and we went through this list and then up cropped. Perfectionistic tendencies 

 They actually said it is one of these Goldilocks constructs that you don’t want too high, don’t want too low, but you do want some perfectionistic tendencies So it’s still like I think you’re right that there is that controversy that still people think of it as something that is Positive there’s something that’s actually this driving success.

but is that not true?

[00:05:44] Tom: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think you want to be on a perfectionism spectrum. certainly not at a high level. I think you want to be in a different spectrum altogether. Oh, you want to be in a conscientious spectrum. you want to be on a diligent spectrum. You want to be in a meticulous spectrum.

Like those are the great, great qualities of high achievers, but not the perfectionist spectrum. I mean,just look at the data. Let’s go very boring, but let’s look at the data. There is no relationship between perfection and performance.

In the data, and this is across all the studies that have ever been conducted. if you aggregate the findings, you find no relationship at all. I think that speaks volumes. There’s many reasons for that. Maybe we’ll talk about them, but I think that speaks volumes to this idea that perfectionism is crucial or essential to elite performance.

You’ll actually find that. Elite performers who are perfectionistic got there despite their perfectionism, not necessarily because of it. And there were other factors in their story that perhaps carried them over the line. Things like genes, things like social circumstances and all the rest of it.

Right? So we, we need to be very careful, extrapolating from elite performance and perfectionistic people who are elite performers, this is the perfection that got there. It’s often not going to be the case. 

[00:06:50] Martin: It’s a survivorship bias, isn’t it? We tend to focus on people who are at the elite, and we try and extrapolate some of the things about these people that have made it and assume that is the characteristic that’s got them there. But that’s not always the case, right?

[00:07:05] Tom: Absolutely. I think we live in a world where people want really quick. Easy answers, very reductive world. you look at the big podcast,you put anyone that’s made it to the top and they’ll tell you a wonderful story and I’m sure it’s true. And in their mind, it’s certainly true about, you know, hard work, sacrifices, stay in the course and all this stuff.

Like it provides a sense of dignity, a sense of self respect, which we all need to feel, but we have to be really careful. of applying those same rules in our lives and say, well, if I just did those things, then I’ll make it to the very top two. I’ll be the CEO. I’ll be the premiership football player.

I’ll be the Navy seal or whatever it is, that we see as the most elite of the elite. it’s so complex. it’s like a garden of forking paths, right? Like we could take one different turn, a crucial juncture in our lives and we end up in a completely different place.

know, sometimes that’s just fate. And I think we, we forget that when we look at these elite performers,and pinpoint things like their perfectionism is crucial to assess. We forget that there’s a much more complex story underneath it.

[00:08:04] JP: Tom, do you feel that this increase in perfectionism, which you mentioned, has this been driven by the digital age and the increased use of social media and sort of this heightened sense of individualism so to speak, in society? 

[00:08:19] Tom: Yeah. I think You spot on social media is. Is obviously, a culprit, by the way, this is also a debate topic. You see a lot of researchers saying social media is not so bad. Data shows it doesn’t have that an impact on mental health.

And they’re like, yeah, but people who have Kids can see, you know, they don’t need the data. They can see how toxic it can be when you just have a screen and you’re scrolling through it day by day by day, I don’t think there’s any doubt that certainly that has an impact on our perception of what’s normal.

whereas when we were growing up, there was no social media, so essentially you just had your mates in the schoolyard to compare yourself to, and some of them were, the jocks or whatever, and you would maybe feel inferior to them, but it wasn’t like this kind of crushing sense that everybody out there is better than me.

And that’s the sense we feel in his social media because it’s so globalized. And by the way, we see perfectionism scores inflect upwards in our data around 2007, which just so happens to be the time Apple released the iPhone and these social media platforms came into our lives 24 seven. Now that’s not the causal evidence.

But that’s very strong circumstantial evidence that there is a link here. So I do think there are cultural facts at play, but social media certainly being one of them, but there are others, you know, schools become more competitive. consumerism is much more rampant, consumerism and social media are two parts of the same story.

 parenting has become a lot more demanding and surveilling. Uh, there are other factors at play, but yeah, social media is certainly the biggest one.

[00:09:51] JP: On that, and it is just a question that you had running through my mind. so we’ve had this increased use of social media over the past two decades, but also arguably over a longer period there’s just sort of been this loss of faith in society. People are, meandering away from religion and recognizing the importance of religion, which we previously had in society.

Do you think that’s played into this as well? 

[00:10:13] Tom: Yeah, there’s a secularization of society that has meant a move towards more individualistic ways of thinking. I think consumerism has certainly become the new god, if you want to call it that. the altar of materialism is what many people worship at these days, as ways of to mark our signal and status.

I’m not a religious person. but to my mind, the criticisms that were leveled up. the church and how, society was structured in times when the church had a lot of power. is no different in terms of its impact on people as the current day.

You know, and this,idea that we, you know, we, we are guided by a different set of ideals that are,very unhealthy. So I think, I think you’re absolutely right. I think there was a. Move away from community as we moved,to a more secular society, which made us more individualistic and saw ourselves rather than participants in society as consumers.

And I do think that’s had an impact on people’s mental health. I do think that’s had an impact on our levels of perfectionism. so in answer to your question, yes, I think it probably has had an impact.

[00:11:12] Martin: Super interesting. Super interesting. So if we’re going to say that that perfectionism isn’t driving success. What does perfectionism look like? So someone who is highly perfectionistic, what does their life look like? 

[00:11:25] Tom: Basically, what you’re asking there is, what does perfectionism feel like? And it’s a really good question because perfectionism feels very distinctive. 

And it has very, it has two difficult bookends, I suppose. The first is that 

when we fail, we feel really bad about ourselves.

There’s a lot of self criticism. There’s 

a lot of worry and rumination. 

 and a sense that we’ve revealed. 

In some way are in a frailties and we feel bad about ourselves as a consequence of self esteem plummets, but on the other hand, when we’ve been successful, there’s no joy to be found as a satisfaction is no contentment because the better we do, the better we think we should do, you know, so it creates a new floor for us.

And in many ways, that success was the baseline. We should be doing that. We’re a perfectionist. We should be high achievers. And so this is the trap of perfectionism. In essence, you pincered between two unwinnable games on the one hand, trying to avoid failure, which is never going to happen. We’re going to fail with human beings.

And on the other hand, being perfectionist. singly unable to derive any lasting satisfaction from success. It’s an exhausting existence. It’s a miserable existence. I could tell you this from firsthand experience and that’s what perfectionism feels like. It’s, it’s a kind of lack of any joy or contentment, of just being alive.

And I think, that’s one of the reasons why I’m very firmly on the camp of it being a very maladaptive and negative trait.

[00:12:48] Martin: So, does it therefore manifest in,mood disorder? Do we see people who are high in perfectionistic, are they also high in, in associated mood disorders, depression, anxiety, those sorts of things?

[00:13:00] Tom: absolutely. Yeah. Very strong correlation with depression, very strong correlation with anxiety, self presentational concerns, image related disorders, anorexia, bulimia, self harm, and sadly worse And this is neglected part of perfectionism. Perfectionism we don’t like to talk about a great deal whilst we’re valorizing and lionizing its qualities.

The evidence is there. And these correlations, by the way, are really strong. Like in psychological research, the average correlation is about 0. 21. We’re looking at, barely 5 percent of variance explained. tiny effects. We’re looking at relationships between perfectionism and anxiety depression across meta analysis in the magnitude of 0.5. About 25 percent of variance explained in these clinical outcomes is is explained by perfectionism. That’s unheard of in psychology research and,and it’s testament to what researchers call perfectionism as a trans diagnostic risk factor, a risk factor for manner of mental health difficulties. For simple reason that perfectionism makes us so intently, stress aware and vulnerable that.

Anytime we hit a setback, anytime we reveal a chink or we encounter challenge, a whole sense of self and mental health plummets in those moments, 

because those are the things, those are the shameful interiors that we’re trying to hide from the world around us. And, Untreated, unchecked, that can create a cycle of debilitating psychological outcomes.

[00:14:23] JP: Tom, was that data from specific population groups? Or was that quite a broad spectrum sort of analysis? 

[00:14:30] Tom: That’s a broad spectrum analysis. Yeah. general community, young people and clinical populations too. Of course, meta analysis are able to tease out effects for different domains. So we can do moderation analysis. Meta analysis takes into consideration is between study differences.

So it’s able to control for them. Um, so we, can be fairly certain those correlations are correlations that you’d see across all sorts of areas of life. I would say, obviously they’re much stronger in clinical populations. Of course, they obviously this time and time again, but nevertheless, it’s the case that it’s fairly consistent across all populations.

[00:15:02] JP: Just out of interest, many of our listeners will be from what we class as an extremist population groups. So these are populations for whom the consequence of Failure can result in death or catastrophic loss, so military, police, fire service and so on. Has there been any specific research conducted in these population groups in regards to perfectionism potential negative impacts of it? 

[00:15:23] Tom: No, there hasn’t. And I’d love to do that. I think this is definitely an area where we need to know more. So, these high risk professions where the consequences of failure are so intently serious, you’d think, wouldn’t you, intuitively, that would suit itself to a perfectionistic person, someone who goes across the detail. But honestly, you would not want somebody like me flying your plane, doing your operation, in charge of an important and crucial mission. Because what you need in those circumstances is agility. What you need is to be able to respond quickly when things start to turn sour. Not dither, not worry, not think, oh my goodness me, what’s everyone thinking, who’s looking, who’s watching, but actually address the challenge head on with a clear and focused mind.

And that’s why perfectionistic people are not good in those situations, that’s why you don’t want perfectionists in those roles, because when they’re really needed, when their skills are really needed, they tend to withdraw and withhold out of fear.and so that’s why I’d love to do some research in these areas, because I think you’ll find that people who make it to the top in those professions aren’t perfectionistic at all.

I think they’re very diligent, I think they’re very conscientious, I think they’re meticulous to the nth degree. But not perfectionist.

[00:16:47] JP: It’s a really interesting point you made there because we use a term called VUCA to describe the operational environment, so volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And it’s a very chaotic and very dangerous environment in which these individuals have to operate within. And I just think back to my own military experience in the training environment, Now you would define this perfectionism, just squaring away every last detail, making sure everything’s as perfect as could be.

But then what you realize when deployed in operations that acted as a quite a good foundation, a baseline, so to speak, by which to operate from and to apply your techniques, tactics and procedures or TTPs because everyone was singing off the same song, so to speak. But then obviously you don’t, operate in a quite volatile environment.

And if you did not demonstrate adaptability and it’s that old adage, adapt or die, you’re in a pretty sticky wicket. But then once that was finished and you came back from ops, or you came back to training environment, there was then there was this drive to reestablish this baseline and everything must be perfect.

And then it goes off again. It’s And I just think back to it and some of the things that we used to do were crazy. They were just, they were nonsensical. But then you look at it, there’s a lot of tacit knowledge there. It’s something that’s been passed down through generations. it works for some reason, but I don’t think it’s From how you’ve described it now, I don’t see it as being perfectionism.

It’s something different. I just, I can’t vocalize it, if that makes sense. 

[00:18:09] Tom: I agree with you. I think I often get confused to somebody who’s an anti perfectionist, so to speak, is that, well, are you against like achievement? Are you against meticulousness? Are you against people striving?

This isn’t the case at all. and I think you do need a foundation of those things, particularly in these professions. Absolutely. I mean, it would be completely, negligent to not instill these values. That is just par for the course, but that doesn’t mean these values are perfectionistic, like. High standards don’t have to come with perfectionism, right? Only insecurity graphs those two together, right? And that’s key. As, as long as you can take the insecurity away from the high standards of meticulousness, then there’s no reason why you can’t instill those values and have very healthy working environments that are very high performing and teach people to be agile in moments of extreme stress.

[00:19:02] Martin: Yeah, I think the people that I’ve worked with in some of these high pressure, high stress jobs where there’s a significant severe consequence of failure. They have high standards. my observation is they don’t have excessively high standards. They have high standards, but they’re not excessively high. And I think these people meet that standard, but then they’ve not got. Excessive concern about going even further. Once they’ve got to that place, they’ve met that standard. they’re happy to move on. 

So I guess that’s not perfectionism, is it? Being meticulous, being conscientious, setting high standard is not a bad thing. It’s the combination of then just never being able to reach the standard. it’s too high. would that be accurate.

[00:19:43] Tom: Absolutely any scenario, in any profession, you’re going to get to a point where your competencies are at a level that you can dispatch your duties efficiently and successfully time after time. That’s consistency. And ultimately you have to know that sometimes, you can overdo it. You can over optimize, you can overwork the butter like it’s just a reality and. And the subtitle of my book is the power of good enough. A hundred percent love it. It was a publisher’s decision. But one of the things we’re trying to drive at is this idea that look, sometimes there are many, many, many, many good enough ways to get this job done, right? But no one perfect way. Right? No one perfect way. and so sometimes you can miss the wood for the trees. If you’re trying to perfect the outcome of each and every task that you do, you neglect the fact that you’ve got to complete the task. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. This is, age old adage, but it’s really true. And I think that drives what you’re talking about there, Martin, when it comes to,high standards, driving people, but not, completely overrunning them, they become overwhelming.

[00:20:48] Martin: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So coming back to my old training, the young sports psychologist, I was taught about healthy perfectionism of adaptive perfectionism. We’re throwing that out the window, right? that’s, in your opinion, they don’t make sense.

[00:21:03] Tom: Well, you know, I haven’t made many friends, in the perfectionism world.

[00:21:07] Martin: I find that hard to believe, Tom.

[00:21:09] Tom: no, look, there are two camps, as I mentioned, and, um,you know, we’re on one side, myself, my colleagues, and, there is another side that believe, there is something to be said about this trait and it’s can be healthy and it and it can be positive. I think it’s an oxymoron. I think Thomas Greenspan was right when he described healthy perfection as oxymoron. Perfection is an inherently impossible goal. So how can it possibly be healthy? It’s it doesn’t make any sense, to call this drive healthy. So, look again. It’s just my perspective. I think if you talk to another researcher in the field, uh, they would have a slightly different one. 

[00:21:45] Martin: I agree with you. I’ve got to say I’m on your side of the debate, I think, Tom, having read your work. I think, for me, healthy perfectionism or adaptive perfectionism is Not perfectionism. it’s something else. I think, as soon as we started aiming for the impossible, It is not, helpful.

I think that, that is very much, where I’ve come out in this side of the argument.

[00:22:10] Tom: Absolutely. Yeah. I appreciate that. Appreciate that. Martin. I can count you among us. I’ll add you, add you to the list, you’re on the team.

[00:22:19] Tom: You’ve got a WhatsApp group invite coming.

[00:22:23] Martin: Thanks, Tom. I’ve made it. I’ve made it. Finally, there’s excessively high standards. I set myself. I’m there. 

[00:22:29] JP: Well, I think, coming into this conversation as a layman, I think I’m definitely on your side in this regard, because I think the way you’ve explained it and the negative ramifications of this is something I hadn’t really considered. And it’s quite interesting in the work. My own students sort of have this analogy.

There’s no such thing as perfect because they always seem to be striving for perfection. You’re like, guys, there’s no such thing. You’ve got to learn for your mistakes. We want you to fail, but then ego and everything else comes into play, which is really, really interesting. And we find that we have to almost break them down somewhat to build them back up and for them just to be to help that awareness. 

[00:23:06] Tom: telling me there’s you go in strength and conditioning students. Surely not JP. 

[00:23:11] JP: Oh, strength and conditioning students are bad, but not as bad as military PTIs. They’re a whole different level. Believe you 

[00:23:18] Tom: Is that right? Okay.

[00:23:20] JP: Oh, yes. Thank you. Strength and conditioning egos on steroids. And I can say that because I come from that background. But what is good though, is with that population group is, I think, when they relate these concepts to their own practice, they can be really, uh, quite thoughtful.

I would say vast majority. And I think indeed that’s why Martin said this would be a brilliant topic to discuss. I think not only military PTIs, but just wider population groups who actually operate in these sort of contexts that strive to be better, but not perfect. 

[00:23:53] Tom: Yeah. Progress over perfection.

we’re throwing out the cliches tonight, but it is true. there’s a cliche for a reason. Like you’re not going to make progress with, perfectionism. It’s going to block your progress. It’s going to make you avoid procrastinate dither. It’s not healthy in that respect.

[00:24:09] Martin: So absolutely ditch it. Choose a different path. Hmm.I agree. I think that’s the sound bite for this episode. Maybe . I’m interested, Tom, in your thoughts about. People that, live in a world that’s not often seen. So we’ve talked about social media, I don’t use much social media, but man, I love it when I get the kudos.

I’m Strava if I’ve gone for a bike ride or a run. we all, we live in that world now where we’ve got these online communities, but there are certain jobs, there are certain people who look after us in the general public. who live and work in the shadows. They don’t get any praise.

Well, not broadly, because what they do secret, what they do is, is not for public consumption, but we need these people to be doing these jobs. The, you secret, the covert, the undercover, those sorts of things. Now, in your opinion, Tom, do you think that perfectionism exists in those environments where There’s no public, or there’s no overt praise? Or do you think they’re protected because they’re not? Involved in social media in the way that the rest of us are.

[00:25:17] Tom: It’s a really difficult one to say. I think obviously the people that do these jobs are exceptional individuals and they’ve been, they’ve been through a very difficult selection process to get there. there can be no doubt about that These people are the best of the best. and they obviously, vetted in ways that, mean that they’re, they have personality types and characteristics that allow them to, exist in those roles and have that dissonance, between the,the public self, so to speak, and then the professional self, if you were perfectionistic to live, that life would be intolerable. I don’t think it would be possible. The worry, the anxiety that you would carry around about surveillance or being watched or being found out or being uncovered or whatever would be just too much to bear. you would burn out. very quickly. So I think the answer to your question would be no. I think the perfectionists in the sample pool would have been whittled away long before the selection process. but I don’t know. this is just a speculation, but this would be my suspicion. 

[00:26:37] Martin: Yeah, it was a tough question because there’s no research or I think there’s not research that’s available in journals at least. I think I agree with you. But we’re really talking about. Self oriented perfectionism, aren’t we? And I know there’s different types of perfectionism that at the moment we’re talking about the standards that we set for ourselves.

Can we talk about the other types of perfectionism? are there different types and what are 

[00:26:42] Tom: Yeah, absolutely. that’s the great thing about perfectionism, just as much as we talk about perfectionism being a broad personality trait, it can manifest and look like different things and manifest in different ways, depending on the dominant form of perfectionism that’s at play. So self oriented perfectionism, you’re right, is a, perfection comes from within the high self set goals and standards, really a high expectations, excessive expectations, fused to harsh self criticism, but then there’s also a social element too.

So perfectionistic people don’t just have high standards for themselves. They feel like other people expect them to be perfect all the time. everybody’s watching their waiting to pounce. When I’ve shown a. A weakness and they’re going to let me know this is socially prescribed perfectionism and we also see perfection turned outward onto others as well 

I’m harder myself when I fall short So that’s gonna also apply to you because that’s only fair. This is called other oriented perfectionisms 

So there’s perfectionism turned outwards onto other people and you see these three I suppose you call the flavors of perfectionism, expressed differently across individuals.

So no one perfectionist is the same. Some people are high on social, some people are high on self, some people are high on other, and 

all sorts of combinations in between. But those are 

the three dominant ways in which 

perfectionism expresses. 

[00:27:49] Martin: So if we’re talking about other oriented perfectionism, the standard you set for other people. If I’m a leader, if I’m a team leader, a manager. a commanding officer, whatever it is. And I’ve got other oriented perfectionistic tendencies. I set very high standards for other people. Is that a good thing? your teammates, the people that you’re leading get, risen up to your level of expectation?

[00:28:13] Tom: no. And that’s not what the data says. the data is very clear. These people, do not enjoy harmonious relationships. They find themselves in conflict with other people time And time again, and this is across all sorts of domains, work, relationships, friendships, what you name it, there is tension. because, you know, it’s never enough for the other way into perfectionist, no matter how How’d you try? You need to try even harder. 

There’s no praise. There’s no recognition or of any accomplishment. It’s a very stifling environment and it’s not good for the perfectionist either because they never feel like they belong. They never feel like people, Appreciate them or recognize them. And so their projection of their own high standard, because this is all this is what Freud would call projections is all projection. The prediction of their high standards onto other people isn’t being met with the praise or recognition or adulation that they’re expecting, because it is. They’re basically pissing other people off in the process. and so that’s why you tend to find that this is not something that’s very conducive to harmonious relationships. and ultimately in the workplace, it’s not something that leads to high performance.

[00:29:22] Martin: Yeah, I’ve seen it. Many times in JP, I’m sure you have in your military career that you get some leaders who This is the thing. My observation is that they’ve got their heart in the right place They think they’re doing the right thing that they think that by setting these excessively high standards that’s gonna improve the group’s performance

[00:29:41] Tom: sure of it, Martin. They don’t just think it 

[00:29:44] Tom:  They’re certain.


[00:29:45] Martin: Yeah. So I think that, the heart’s in the right place. They’re trying to do the right thing. But the data saying it’s not helping. the problem that I’veseen is these people don’t realise So how do we stop it? How do we change this other oriented perfectionism? Can we?

[00:30:03] Tom: Absolutely. You can. There’s always hope the first thing you’ve got to remember if you’re,a part of a team that’s has many of our interperfectionist inside it is that this isn’t your fault. Like this isn’t a problem with you. You it’s not you. Who’s performances are so low that they draw the ire of the people around you. This is all projection. All right, this is all the other oriented perfectionist way of soothing their own Insecurities through the projection of perfection onto other people. You have to remember that at all times. It’s not about you. Okay. It might feel like that in the moment when you’re getting criticized or whatever, but feel like that, but it isn’t. it’s coming from a different place. That’s the first thing to remember. 

The second thing is Always challenge, but do so in a constructive way. What you need to do is have clear lines of communication revolving into perfectionists. Think about what they’re expecting of you. Think about the timeframe in which they’re expecting that and talk to them in very factual matter of fact ways, why is that that expectation that’s being placed on you in this moment is unreasonable?

Why is it? Let’s take a look at the timeline and look what I have to do. Walk them through it step by step. Tell them that this is simply not an achievable outcome with the resources or time. That we have. So we need to come to some sort of arrangement about how we, pull those expectations into something that’s realistic to something that’s achievable. and the more you do that, and the more that you bring other people with you, The more you can get through to these, people in ways that they may not be happy with, but nevertheless, the ways that are factual, and ways that get those goals or expectations recalibrated to more reasonable standard. And that’s all you can do. So there is hope, but you just have to be open with them.

[00:31:57] JP: Tom, I’ve seen in the context of military type organizations of hierarchical organization and the chain of command is obviously they will issue a directive or an order and obviously the order there needs to be followed out by the subordinates. That’s the way the system works right or wrong. So within that sort of context, perfectionism is an issue.

I’ve witnessed that myself in certain command appointments. But then is there things which can be done from a cultural perspective to one raise awareness to educate individuals and three help shape the culture, shape the environment whereby perfectionists tendencies can sort of be identified and dealt with within that culture.

And that’s so it’s pretty open ended question, but It’s one of those things within those sort of organizations. How could that be achieved? I’m just thinking within the military, there’s a term called jack. So if you’re jack essentially means you’re selfish. You’re not part of the team effort and you will get a chastise very quickly for being a jack individual because you are not adhering to the set cultural norms of said organization whereby teamwork team cohesion is so important.

And How that is addressed. there’s different ways and means some not for podcast, but it’s just interesting because there’s a culture there. And when someone does not adhere to those cultural norms, that is when they’re deemed as being jack. And I just wonder, could the same be done for this concept for perfectionism?

[00:33:25] Tom: it’s a really good point, JP. my last answer was more sort of, if you’re working for McKinsey and everyone’s on slides and having, pick a mix for lunch and all the rest of it. this is a different kind of conversation when it comes to organizations like the military with strict hierarchies.  It’s a much more difficult place for a subordinate to speak up in those. settings, about their concerns or not necessarily their concerns, but perhaps, you know, the ways that we can maybe recalibrate goals or expectations. It just simply doesn’t happen, right? It’s not something that can be done. So that’s where you’re absolutely right. It has to start from the top down where there is a strict hierarchies. It needs to be a culture intervention. And, there are many things you can do. One of the things we know as a lot of evidence based for is something called psychological safety. That sounds very Kumbaya, 

but it actually has a lot of evidence for its efficacy and performance settings. The psychological safety is essentially providing a culture whereby it is okay to make mistakes. Right now we want high performance and we have a certain benchmark of expectation and that doesn’t change fine. But at the same time There’s no such thing as a stupid question and if we make mistakes we talk about it because there’s nothing worse than making a mistake hiding it because we feel like we’re going to Expose some vulnerability or weakness and then find in four months down the line that the parts missing And suddenly there’s a catastrophic accident because we didn’t speak up right in that moment.

And that, that’s so important in cultures that we have an openness and a permission for people to fail, to make mistakes, to speak up. And that comes from the top, you know, you have to lead by example in those organizations, you have to show your subordinates that you are a human being. And that sometimes you do make mistakes, and in the past you’ve made mistakes, and in the present you’ll make mistakes, and when you do make mistakes, laugh about them, normalize them, you can bring it into the culture.

But nevertheless, it’s so important that you create those environments, because on top of having high standards, and on top of having high expectations, It’s okay. Also within high performance cultures to also allow for mistakes and fairies. And I think that absolutely has to come from the top. So psychological safety within organizations, such as the military, I think is really important.

[00:35:47] JP: That’s a good point you made there, because I think there’s an active conversation around that concept now within the British Army. I know that for sure from some of the stuff that should be pushing out, which is very different. I think it was a cultural norm and in certain organizations within military, but now it seems to be getting more of a mainstream sort of impact, which is good to see in the sort of aligns quite nice with what you discussed there.

[00:36:12] Martin: I’m gonna hallenge you on that, though, Tom, Okay, what if that mistake means that a hostage has now been killed? You know, you’ve got hostage rescue, and that mistake has resulted in the death of the one person that you’re there to save. that’s a mistake that you can’t come back from?

[00:36:31] Tom: of course,

[00:36:31] Martin: is there an exception to the rule in certain Ultra high stress literally life and death situations.

[00:36:39] Tom: that’s the whole point of having a high performance culture so that those mistakes hopefully don’t happen in the first place. You know, that’s why we have these extremely stringent cultures of, of exceptionalism, but.

That said, we are all human beings and even the best of us will sometimes make mistakes, sometimes catastrophic mistakes. That’s the nature of the beast. And, the bigger mistake, obviously, the bigger the implication, but my comments around psychological safety are really.

About the idea that when this does happen, and most of the time, the mistakes won’t quite be as catastrophic as you described that we are able to discuss them because that’s how we improve, right? That’s that’s how we make sure that this mistake doesn’t escalate into something bigger or that it doesn’t happen again. that is the whole point. Point of cultures of exceptionalism that we learning from these errors. and so letting them in is such an important part of that process. I think that would be how I’d answer that one. 

[00:37:40] Martin: Yeah, thanks tom. 

[00:37:41] JP: It’s quite interesting that the sort of the point you raised there, Tom, there’s another organization called the Mission Critical Team Institute based over in the U. S. And they’ve got their own podcast, the team cast, and they’ve had several guests on talking exactly this sort of area, the psychological safety, but more importantly, the importance of debriefing and listening and learning from those mistakes and thinking about models for you.

So I think Martin, You’ve presented a real model, which I really like. There’s the stop five model 

[00:38:10] Martin: Yeah, I borrowed it. It’s not mine. I’ve borrowed it

[00:38:13] JP: Oh man, you had a chance there.

[00:38:14] Martin: Shout out to gary bamford

[00:38:15] JP: Martin, could you just, what is the stop five model? You could just quickly recap

[00:38:19] Martin: the stop five model, it’s a, it’s a hot debrief. it’s a stop five minutes, five minutes. S stands for summarize what’s happened. T is things that’s gone well. O is opportunities for the future and P is putting it into a plan of action and it’s just five minutes.it’s used as a hot debrief at the end of any event, but it is a learning process, exactly like you said there, Tom, it’s about, things that have gone well.

Things that haven’t and you know the idea with it is around psychological safety because you start by making sure is everyone Okay, Is everybody okay first and foremost? Okay, Let’s get on. Let’s do this hot debrief So absolutely 100 percent agree that These exceptional groups do these sorts of things really well In all circumstances,

[00:39:01] Tom: So Martin, can I just, as you said, it was five minutes. Is that because in the moment it’s time critical to capture what exactly happened and what we can learn. 

[00:39:09] Martin: yeah, you don’t want to go away and ruminate for 24 hours and then debrief it because you change the story in your own mind, things play out differently over time.

So it’s one of those standards like we’ve talked about of exceptional teams. They have high standards, and one of those standards is this is something that we do before you’ve had a shower, before you’ve had your coffee, before you put your kit away. We get this stuff done immediately as part of the process. comes down to learning. It comes down to improvement that these exceptional groups of people build it into their normal, processes. It’s just this is what they do. It’s nothing new.

[00:39:45] Tom: that’s a fascinating, model. And I quite like the hot nature of it. You know, that short shop. Let’s get in there. Let’s think about it now. Let’s not let it dwell or, marinate a little bit, but let’s deal with it.

Right. Cause that can happen, right? Like we, no one wants to talk about it. Should we bring it up? Should we not? Should we let it fester? 

[00:40:01] Martin: we could do a whole episode on debriefs quite easily. There’s so much in this. But I think in terms of where it fits in with perfectionism, This is a process that, that people go through when there has been a catastrophic accident where someone might have been killed.

these are the kind of discussions that people have when something like that happens. I agree with you, Tom, that it’s about learning from that experience. It’s just, it’s learning from what’s happened in that experience.

 Coming back to the point. JP, you mentioned this idea of being Jack, about being selfish. I also think of Jack as being work shy, that people who are Jack, withhold effort. and Tom, one of my favourite parts of your book, when you’re talking about Andy Hill’s study around cycling and withholding effort, I really like that.

can we, can you just describe what happens to perfectionists in terms of withholding effort?

[00:40:53] Tom: I want to know what Jack did to deserve this moniker

[00:40:56] Martin: I don’t know why they’re called Jack, but that is the name

[00:41:00] Tom: Whoever was the og jack

[00:41:02] JP: Joe, that’s a really fascinating question though, we may have to go to the National War Museum and see if we can draw out the archives, there’ll be something in there.

[00:41:09] Tom: Yeah, poor guy, okay. this is such a good question because this is one of the studies that I taught. and , it’s got like 16 citations or something. 

[00:41:18] Martin: It’s a good study. It’s a good story. It’s impactful. I like it.

[00:41:22] Tom: it’s a wonderful study that highlights something beautiful about perfectionism. And, and that is this. So one of the things we really like to do when we study perfectionism and put perfectionists in, in situations of challenge, because you really find out about people in situations of challenge, how they respond, are they agile, are they resilient, or do they succumb that perfectionistic people don’t deal too well with challenge for the reasons that we discussed. They’re very, they’re intently self critical. They feel a lot of shame, guilt in those moments. And as a consequence, to avoid those negative feelings, they tend to remove themselves from challenge, right? Because the fear of failure overrides. The pursuit of success in essence. So that’s why when me and Andy Hill, many years ago, now you used to do our little lab based experiments, looking at what happens when you put perfectionistic people in situations of failure. Basically, we got them in the lab as sports science lab, and we got them to race on a bike against the goal that we told them they should comfortably meet.

Don’t worry. Your fitness dictates that you’re going to meet this goal. No problem. So away you go. Try as hard as you can and at the end we’ll tell you whether you met it. So the participants, they go really hard and they work, they, they bust the balls off to try and beat this goal. And then at the end we tell them that, you didn’t quite make it.

Sorry,you didn’t meet the goal. but it’s okay. Don’t worry. You can have another go. you can redeem yourself. It’s all good. Have a rest. Come back. We’ll go again. And that’s,why this study is so beautiful. Because when you measure perfectionism, and we took measures of perfectionism before they did this whole experiment, and then you also take measures of effort, you know, how much effort they’re putting into the task, you see something staggering.

See? What perfectionistic people do, people of high imperfectionism, when they encounter that first failure, on the second attempt, their effort falls off a cliff. They stop trying. Because they don’t want to feel those negative emotions they felt in the aftermath of the defeat. Now the non perfectionist people do almost the opposite.

They don’t change at all. In fact, if anything, they put in a little bit more effort on the second trial. And this interaction effect is essentially the essence of what we mean when we talk about perfectionists being very stress reactive, stress vulnerable. Whenever they encounter setback, they feel intently self conscious, and those feelings are so powerful that they will avoid Feeling them again by removing themselves so they withhold themselves in positions of challenge.

They procrastinate, they dither, and that is the main reason, to my mind anyway, why we don’t see correlation, perfectionism and performance. Because those things are not in, in any way related to Hyperform.

[00:44:04] Martin: Yeah, I Gonna come back to something you said earlier that in these exceptional teams He’s high performing teams that you don’t think perfectionists would operate very well in that environment and I’m wondering whether on these arduous selection qualification type courses to get you into one of those high performance teams, these crucible events that you’ve got to, get through difficult things.

I’m wondering whether the perfectionist who may be performing exceptionally well in their, home environment. They now go away into a new environment where they, they’re surrounded by other exceptional people. And when they start seeing that they’re not at the top of the tree anymore, that they voluntarily withdraw, they stop, they withhold their effort, so they just don’t make it through because of their own perfectionistic tendencies that they’re withholding their effort, their stress reactivity.

now, when we’re talking about it, it makes sense to me. I mean, JP, you must have seen a bit of this in your day, looking at people going through these arduous courses.

[00:45:01] JP: Yeah, no,

just sort of reflecting the point that you do get those are your high flyers to begin with. So you’ve got some basic income measure testing and they do really well, but then obviously the ratchet starts to get applied and the pressure builds and builds and then they don’t hit the objective or they see others.

beating them, they’re no longer top of the tree, and very quickly they fall off that tree.

And then, and it’s those who are the, the ones that can just sustain a moderate intensity, they can just keep going. They’ve just got that inherent robustness and resilience.

[00:45:23] Tom: It’s like consistency, isn’t it? That’s just consistency of effort time and time again, not being knocked back, not really being focused on what other people are doing, just maintaining a cadence of our own. that is very common among people who are meticulous, people who are conscientious. they are thinking that. Intently all the time. How can I maintain a level? How can I maintain a standard? And perfectionists sadly are too busy Wondering how they’re looking relative to other people and of course at the first sign that they might not make it over this hurdle Well, you know what? I might just need to save face in this situation because It’s not going to look very good if suddenly i’m putting everything into this I’m looking knackered at the finish line and I still don’t make it like that’s not gonna look good for me 

[00:46:16] Martin: yeah, no doubt I can, yeah, this is, this is some really interesting stuff. I’m thinking about different people that I know that have been in these situations. So, the study that you mentioned where you provide feedback to say that you have not achieved sufficient standard. What about when there is no feedback? what if no one’s telling you that you’ve passed or failed? It’s almost like, you know, you’re deafened by silence, that you want someone to tell you something, but they’re not. So like a directing staff or a coach or a leader is withholding feedback. do you think that’s going to play out in the same way?

Because it’s now, they’re just full of self doubt because they’re not getting feedback. Is it, is this what happens with perfectionists?

[00:46:59] Tom: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the good things about the high performance, sectors, for want of a better word, Is that you do get that feedback, like that’s the whole point of the assessment criteria as a whole point of these days, whether you go and do this immense selection process that you actually do get the feedback because it’s crucial to, the success and, in selection, but also the success of the team, you know, you want the very best people on there.

 Where we see this more, I think, is in the workplace. the metrics of success now so nebulous in the modern workplace and change from week to week almost that there’s no wonder people struggle who come in with perfectionism because, you know, this idea to fake it till you make it, this is perfectionism.

Writ large among a workforce, they simply don’t have the confidence in themselves that they’re going to go into a workplace and feel like they’re up to the challenge because they don’t know what the challenge is. And they think everybody else is smashing it and everybody else has these amazing abilities because they just look so confident on the surface.

So I’ve got to look confident on the surface too. I think this ambiguity is a really important point. Someone I really want to look into deeper because I think there’s something to be said about ambiguity of, outcome in the modern world and indifference, like indifference to outcome in the modern world that I think is so important for our understanding of perfectionism, both why we are perfectionistic and also how perfectionism impacts our mental health, particularly in the workplace.

But I don’t know whether necessarily you see that so much in high performance context, but maybe you can correct me.

[00:48:29] Martin: I think you do. 

Ultimately, the, the people who work in these exceptional roles are exceptionally competent in certain areas. But that’s just people, they are people, and they have the same, issues, if that’s the right phrase. There’s things going on in their lives, just like everyone else, they just happen to be very good at certain things.

And more often than not, they’re very good at doing basic things really, really, really well. That they’ve high standards and they can do those things really well. But they are just people, ultimately. We’ve said this is a cultural thing, right? We,we’re exposed to a lot of these cultural influences and people who work in these crunchy roles, they’re still exposed to these cultural influences like we all are. 

[00:49:12] JP: You’ve just made me think of a book I read by John Spencer. he’s an academic over in the States and he runs podcasts called Urban Warfare Podcasts. He’s a, an urbanista is what you call him. He specializes in this concept, urban warfare, but he served in Iraq in the, US military, and he done a. Two operational tours in the initial invasion, where he actually jumped in to Mosul and had an interesting experience. And then he went back with the company around 2008 2009. So an infantry company, about 150 men, he was the OC. And what he said, he wrote a book off his experiences called Connected Soldiers. And basically, he was able to see the difference in generations, and it was over only five, six years, whereby on the initial operation, the initial invasion of Iraq, the soldiers could share experiences together, they didn’t have connection to the internet, they only had each other, and they formed a really tight, cohesive unit, and they were able to achieve really good results, and they were quite robust and resilient when they came back from that tour, they didn’t have too many issues.

However, the subsequent tour, when they came back and off the ground, They all bomb bursted to their pods and just got on the internet, played computer games and all of a sudden they were connected to the internet, but disconnected from each other and he observed a mark impact upon operational effectiveness is a direct result of that and it’s something I never thought about until I read the book, but it’s just he writes it almost like a diary entry, but he’s able to reflect and he makes a very, very strong argument that If we’re going to be deploying individuals to these operational theatres, maybe it’s beneficial for them to operate in an austere way, i. e. to disconnect from the world so that they’re not relating and connecting and the negative connotations that can come from that because the downstream effect could be very grave.

If they are not switching on, if they’re not working together as a team, if they’re not decompressing when they come off the ground by talking and sharing stories, which has been done for hundreds of generations previous, it’s just a fascinating book. But you can sort of see the tie in between his observation there and obviously what we’ve been discussing within this podcast.

[00:51:23] Tom: That’s super fascinating. just in the space of five years to see such a marked difference. We are seeing this in younger people more generally who are feeling more socially disconnected, more alienated and more lonely. more so than any other generation that’s having a major impact on their mental health, but I hadn’t made the connection that you just talked about there between, uh, the human connection and, the then downstream effects that has on all sorts of areas of life that you wouldn’t even have connected it to, before, and obviously this being a very important, performance domain in a very,high pressure and stressful situation i’d love to read that but I mean that’s that sound that sounds fascinating.

[00:52:03] JP: Yeah, it’s connected by John Spencer.

I’ve got a link for it, I’ve got a copy and we can certainly share it with you. But definitely 

a thought provoking read. 

[00:52:11] Martin: We’ll put it in the show notes. Now, we could go on for hours, Tom, I’m sure. But I will offer over to you just to wrap up, final words from you. What’s the most important thing that people need to know about perfectionism, in your opinion? 

[00:52:25] Tom: the main messages I think is really important to spread is, is, is I think we have to, we have tolook at perfectionism from a slightly different angle.

We often look at perfectionism through the lens of it being a necessary evil, maybe our favorite floor, something that we. we perhaps know there’s baggage, but we couldn’t successful without and just slightly challenge that a little bit and ask ourselves, well, what is that positive part of perfectionism?

And is it what we think it is? And I think if you actually look at the data, if you think about what perfectionism really is, and, You read the research that our lab and other labs have collated, you’ll find that actually it isn’t a necessary evil, it isn’t something that’s pushing us forward.

It’s actually something that’s holding us back. It’s going to do way more harm than it’s going to do good. And if you’re interested in high performance, is not going to be the route to that goal. Meticulousness, diligence, conscientiousness, providing spaces for, for challenge and innovation and creativity.

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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