The nature of a virtue is that a vice is almost always hidden inside.
In the newest view of personality, our traits are no longer seen as binary—you are either conscientious or you’re not—but as dimensional, existing on a continuum. Not only does each characteristic fall on a spectrum, each holds the grain of its own destruction: Organized becomes obsessive. Daring escalates to risky. Modest slips to insecure. Confident turns to arrogant, cautious to anxious, persuasive to domineering, friendly to ingratiating.
The seven deadly sins might very well have started out as ambition, relaxation, awareness of one’s good work, righteous anger, a healthy sexuality, and enjoying a good meal. It’s all a matter of degree.
In their recently published book, Fear Your Strengths, executive developers Robert Kaiser and Robert Kaplan say that in their collective 50 years of business consulting and executive coaching, they’ve seen virtually every virtue taken too far. “We’ve seen confidence to the point of hubris and humility to the point of diminishing oneself. We’ve seen vision drift into aimless dreaming and focus narrow down to tunnel vision. Show us a strength, and we’ll show you an example where its overuse has compromised performance and probably even derailed a career.”
Human nature, social norms, and the culture of the workplace generally pull us toward virtues. But virtues are not always what they seem. Not only can they conceal vices, they are not invariably virtuous. In a world where rapid change is the one constant, all received wisdom, including what is virtuous, must be regularly re-examined. Nothing is a blanket prescription in a highly dynamic universe. Change requires, above all, adaptability, the ability to stretch beyond the status quo, get beyond what you were taught or see beyond what has worked in the past.
Even when, on the surface, they seem to be one of the best things about an individual or organization, deeply held, unquestioned strengths can be destructive, says Jake Breeden, a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education and author of Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues.
Take the Air Force colonel who, for decades, had made sure to greet each recruit personally with a handshake. After he retired, the incoming colonel replaced his greeting with a video, assigning the personal welcome down the ranks to the sergeants, although it caused him to be perceived as colder and more distant than his predecessor. When someone finally summoned the nerve to ask the new colonel about his video greeting, he replied, “I’m giving the sergeants a little bit of sunshine. I get enough as it is.”
The new colonel was well aware of the implications of his decision. He didn’t do it out of laziness or disregard. By raising the profile of his senior enlisted men, the new C.O. banished an unsustainable cult of personality that depends on a single, charismatic individual. “The beloved C.O. had retired completely unaware of the unintended consequence of what he perceived to be his greatest virtue,” Breeden points out.
Sticking to preconceived ideas of the virtues that make a “good parent,” “loyal employee,” “inspiring boss,” “productive workplace,” or “loving spouse” may often sell ourselves or others short. What’s more, commonly accepted values such as personal involvement, high standards, and meticulous preparation can all backfire. Involving yourself personally in every project and every decision can lead to micromanaging, burnout, and resentment from those under the all-too-constant supervision, whether you’re a corporate VP or a hovering mom.
Demanding excellence across the board can shut down creativity and risk-taking and indicate a lack of priorities—everything doesn’t have to be done perfectly; some things just need to get done. And too much preparation, especially if done in isolation and without feedback, can delay the final outcome or product without actually improving it. We are prone to “falling in love with a script we’ve worked hard to prepare, at the expense of being flexible,” says Breeden.
This is not a call to immediately give up your best qualities and firmly held values. “It’s likely the virtues you hold most closely are there for deep and personal reasons,” says Breeden. “The goal is to stay true to yourself while avoiding the ways your unexamined beliefs and automatic behaviors can backfire.” Even your most engaging traits can be overused, or trotted out at the wrong time, or go too far in degree.
How do you know when a virtue is wearing out its welcome? Only self-awareness can keep core values in check. Taking personal inventory can lead to a realization of which virtues are constructive and beneficial in your life, and when, and which are actually holding you back, making you miserable, or sabotaging work and relationships. And never assume that a virtue that served you well in the past will always continue to do so.
Excellence—or Paralyzing Perfectionism?
Striving for excellence has its payoffs—good marks, approval, awards, a sense of a job well done. But pursuing excellence across the board reflects rigidity and can lead to perfectionism, an inflexible devotion to high standards, and an inability to set priorities.
Psychologist Simon Sherry and colleagues at Canada’s Dalhousie University decided to turn the microscope on their peers by examining levels of perfectionism, conscientiousness, and academic productivity among psychology professors. They found that conscientiousness is associated positively with total publications, but perfectionism is associated negatively with the number of journal publications. It restricts productivity. What’s more, the perfectionists’ papers tended to have little impact.
“There really is a fine line between striving for excellence and striving excessively for perfection,” says Gordon Flett, professor of social sciences and humanities at Toronto’s York University and co-developer of the widely used Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. Perfectionism doesn’t just impact work performance. It takes a toll on health as well. Perfectionists, Flett says, exhibit high levels of chronic illnesses.
Perhaps the most destructive part of pursuing excellence at all costs is that it can destroy creativity, risk taking, and experimentation. Innovation, argues Harvard Business School’s Clay Christensen, demands occasional failure. Companies that go under, he says, are often companies that are doing everything right—they just didn’t see that new, disruptive idea or technology that made them obsolete coming down the pipeline. Excellence, meet good enough. The evolution of any organism is more a branching out to see what happens than a streamlined, linear path toward perfection.
To Breeden, the pursuit of excellence is one of those sacred cows that need to be carefully re-examined. Excellence in all matters overlooks the fact that life is often messy. And it fails to discriminate between what is important and what is not. What’s more, there’s a need to distinguish between process excellence and outcome excellence.
It is much more necessary to seek excellence of outcome than excellence of process. Mistakes (and their corrections) are often the best teachers, and a push for excellence in all things obscures their contribution to success, especially in a world demanding innovation.
For Harvard’s Christensen, disruptive innovation isn’t restricted to the business world, where flexible start-ups encroach on established firms. It has value in private life, too. In a recent speech, he issued “a call for disruption in parenting. I fear that we have parents who have raised a generation of children who don’t have the courage to deal with difficult issues.”
If children are never allowed to cope with failure, he says, then “when they reach adulthood and see daunting tasks, they just choose not to address them.” When children are allowed to overcome obstacles, experience failure, and persevere, they develop determination. Instead of giving up after a try or two, they will search for ways to succeed with the resources available to them—finding workable if not “perfect” solutions. It’s impossible to guarantee children’s success or safety, but they can be allowed to discover the traits of resourcefulness and tenacity—values that trump a drive for excellence in many real-world pursuits.