During preparations for my coach’s live training event, one registrant told me they’d be rooming with a friend.  I didn’t see their friend’s name on the registration list.  At that point, I thought “Gosh, Person A is planning to room with someone who’s not going to be at the conference!  I need to solve this so Person A isn’t going to be hurt, upset, confused, etc….”

That’s when the alarm bells began ringing in my head.  Part of me wondered: “Is it truly MY job to do this?  I bet these 2 friends will sort this out on their own.

I emailed a colleague to get a second opinion on whether I needed to take any action or if this was my over-responsibility (OR) speaking.  The verdict: It was my OR speaking.

I’m increasingly coming to see that OR is the dark side of conscientiousness.  I, my clients and many of my coaching peers are highly conscientious.  On its own, conscientiousness has lots to recommend itself.

womenwithbriefcaseWhen you’re conscientious, you aim to align your actions with your conscience, or your inner values.  Being conscientious (as it’s defined in psychological terms) is closely associated with doing well in school and being successful at work.

“Conscientious employees are generally more reliable, more motivated, and harder working. They also have lower rates of absenteeism and counterproductive work behaviors such as stealing and fighting with other employees.[17] ”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscientiousness  accessed 10/10/2013

Conscientiousness is measured in one major psychological test (the NEO-PI) along two dimensions: industriousness and orderliness.  By this measure, you’re conscientious if 1) you are neat, tidy, like to put things in their place, like to organize your time and 2) you aim to do well, think before acting, and avoid making mistakes.  For example, in the Harry Potter world, Hermione is highly conscientious on both dimensions; Harry is industrious and not orderly; Ron is neither industrious nor orderly.

Being overly conscientious has a dark side

When the desire for neatness and doing well goes too far, you become a perfectionist.  You become overly concerned with neatness and order and it takes a lot of time and energy for you (and probably your family members) to meet your standards.  You want so much to avoid mistakes that you find it hard to take action.  When you make a mistake, it feels horrible or shameful if other people know about it.

When you don’t have healthy boundaries, your conscientiousness moves beyond you into other people and you become overly responsible.  When you’re working with a client or team member and they don’t achieve the results they desire, you assume it’s because YOU did something wrong.  You feel horrible.  You immediately start reviewing everything you did, as well as mentally calculating everything you SHOULD HAVE DONE but didn’t.

This kind of thinking has an odd asymmetry to it: when someone fails, you assume it’s due to your negligence or failing.  When that same person succeeds, you immediately credit THEM for everything they did right and you minimize your contribution to their success.

Staying on the healthy side of conscientiousness

If you tend toward perfectionism, welcome home!  Whoops!  I meant to write: lighten up!  One easy way to relax your perfectionism: spend more time with people who are NOT perfectionists and closely observe what happens when they do things not perfectly (“not perfectly” meaning: not YOUR way).  I’m confident you’ll see that their family and friends do not shun them as a result of them being imperfect.  In fact, they are just as loved as they were before the mistake.  That is true for you RIGHT NOW; your perfectionism prevents you from seeing it.

If you tend toward OR, recognize that your OR is an EMOTIONAL response you have in certain situations.  To change, switch over to your LOGICAL thinking and carefully look at the difference between what you expect of yourself and what you expect of others.  When you try something new, if you fail the first time, do you pick yourself up and try again?  And yet, when others are in the same situation, are you aiming to protect them from making ANY mistake, much less failing, when they’re trying something out?  When you see such an asymmetry between your expectations of self vs. others, that’s a giant red flag.

Conscientiousness will serve you well in your career and your personal life; perfectionism and OR, not so much.

If you recognized yourself in this discussion of conscientiousness vs. perfectionism and over responsibility, then you already intimately KNOW how much time and energy you are expending just to get your regular work done.  If you’re beyond ready to try something new and get more time and energy back for you, then I invite you into a complimentary call with me.  On this call, we’ll look at your goals, what’s getting in your way, and whether coaching with an experienced coach and mentor can help.  Simply email me at info@marcystahl.com and we’ll easily set up a call.

Conscientiousness is the trait that denotes being thorough, careful, or vigilant; it implies a desire to do a task well.[1] Conscientiousness is one trait of the five-factor model of personality, and is an aspect of what has traditionally been called character. It is manifested in characteristic behaviors such as being efficient, organized, neat, and systematic,[2] also including such elements as self-discipline, carefulness, thoroughness, self-organizationdeliberation (the tendency to think carefully before acting), and need for achievement. Conscientious individuals are generally hard working and reliable. When taken to an extreme, they may also be “workaholics”, perfectionists, and compulsive in their behavior. People who score low on conscientiousness tend to be more laid back, less goal-oriented, and less driven by success; they also are more likely to engage in antisocial and criminal behavior.[citation needed]