Perfectionism is Paralysis: Learning to Lead with Confidence

Professor Maja Jovanovic speaking at the Health Leadership Academy’s June 7, 2018 Collaboratorium Talk, “Perfection is Paralysis: Learn to Lead with Confidence.”

Professor Maja Jovanovic is an apology-hater.

She is on a mission to show that over-apologizing isn’t as innocuous as it seems. In fact, apologizing for every single thing has the power to chip away at your self-esteem and fundamentally alter how you perceive yourself.

Earlier this month, Professor Maja addressed a packed house at the Health Leadership Academy’s spring Collaboratorium Talk to discuss apologies, perfectionism and more. To illustrate the severity of over-apologizing, she shared an anecdote from her academic career.

“I was just finishing up the PhD,” she explained, “And I attended an academic conference that completely changed the trajectory of my career.”

Setting the scene, Professor Maja explained that she was in the audience of a panel discussion with four women. The moderator asked the panelists to introduce themselves. Instead of sharing their title or credentials, each panelist expressed endless awe and surprise that they were even invited to participate. These women were tenured professors who had written hundreds of academic articles and dozens of books on the subject between the four of them.

“Four phenomenal experts,” Professor Maja exclaimed. “One after the other, downplaying their achievements. Minimizing their accomplishments. Questioning why they were even there.”

Conversely, she recalled how less-experienced male colleagues at the same conference were able to lead with their accomplishments and own their moment.

Since that time, Professor Maja has witnessed a similar pattern in her personal and professional life: women tend to over-apologize more than men, and get caught up in a cycle of perfectionist thinking.

Essentially, perfectionism is a distorted thinking pattern that is rooted in a fear of failure and causes us to freeze up at critical moments. A perfectionist might want to write a book or ask for a promotion, but the fear of things not working out prevents them from just going for it.

While it’s a pattern of thinking that impacts men and women alike, the research shows that they handle success and failure differently.

“Not all men have this overconfidence, and not all women suffer from this feminine modesty where we downplay,” she said. “But in general this is what the research shows us.”

Much like over-apologizing, perfectionism is another mindset that deteriorates our self-confidence.

“In a nutshell, the pursuit of perfectionism is the pursuit of flawlessness,” she explained. “Perfectionists believe the trajectory of their career to be a straight line, without zigs or zags.”

As Professor Maja shared with the Collaboratorium audience, the first step to addressing perfectionist thinking is to be aware that it is happening.

Here’s a sample of a few cognitive distortions Professor Maja shared with the audience to highlight the different ways we can trap ourselves in distorted thinking. The following is an excerpt from her handout, pulled from David D. Burns’ Feeling Good:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  • Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it; therefore, it must be true.”
  • Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolours the entire beaker or water.

Hearing Professor Maja speak isn’t only about the information she shares, but the enthusiasm with which she shares it. In line with the Collaboratorium’s mission to work together in an open, transparent environment, Professor Maja provided an invigorating talk on how we can all be more confident and lead with our accomplishments.

 

Professor Maja Jovanovic is the author of “Hey Ladies! Stop Apologizing” and an accompanying workbook “Hey Ladies! Stop Apologizing: The Workbook.” She is also a guest expert on CTV’s The Social.

The HLA will be hosting more Collaboratorium Talks on diverse topics this fall. Register for those upcoming events on our website.