How to Avoid Perseverance Pitfalls

By Ruth Pearce

When I was young, I had a babysitter – Sarah – who spent nearly eight months winning the trust of a horse by spending time with him every day while she ate apples. She ate so many apples during that time that now, many years later, she still cannot stand the taste!

The result of Sarah’s perseverance was that she got her own horse for free and a friend - called Justin –for many years. (You can read the whole story here: Perseverance - Possibilities & Pitfalls)

For many of us, it is hard to imagine spending six or eight months winning the trust of a horse! Coaching clients often say, “Oh, I wish I had that sort of determination,” or “If only I would stick with something that long!” However, for some, perseverance can go too far – some may believe that Sarah went too far too. It all depends on the situation, the person and, very often, we measure the value of perseverance by the outcome!

At a workshop recently we discussed how project managers have a tendency to be high in the character strength of Perseverance. As we explored the benefits of having this as a higher strength, the list was short but important to everyone:

  1. We keep going in the face of setbacks.
  2. We help others to focus on solving a problem or challenge rather than giving up.
  3. We get things done.

Perseverance Pitfalls

Next, we explored what the downside of Perseverance might be. At first, there were blank stares. Then someone bravely put up and hand and said, “burnout”. When asked to say more, he said that he has a tendency to keep going after something even if it is taking too much out of him. He will put in extra hours to get a failing project back on track, he will take on extra responsibility, he will take more time to follow up with others until he hits his breaking point.

As he talked, others nodded energetically. Asked to contribute, they reiterated the sense they had that they must see it through, and that asking for help was not an option. After all, who wants to admit that a project you are managing is going off track and that it is more than you can do to fix it?

Next, someone said that we tend to keep flogging a dead horse. We don’t raise concerns about the viability of a project soon enough or forcefully enough. We have a, “we’ve started so we’ll finish” attitude to our projects. This can cost us personally because of the great lengths we go to to keep the project moving forward and it can cost our organizations who end up investing more in a project than they should (negative return on investment) and missing out on the opportunity to change focus to a different project that has become a higher priority (opportunity cost of the project NOT done!).

Being aware of these pitfalls is important. Not knowing when to stop is a challenge for all of us in all life domains. As parents we struggle with whether to encourage our child to keep trying something that they don’t first like – such as karate, peas or piano – or to let them be their own person and express their preference. In relationships we sometimes linger a long time past its “sell-by” date because we think we can fix it or that we should stay because of the commitment we made to the relationship in the past. At work, we may hesitate to raise a red flag on a project or change jobs because we committed to completing something.

What can we do to keep Perseverance in balance?

On the face of it, Sarah’s story is about keeping going in the face of obstacles to get what you want. But behind that story, there is story of balancing strengths to optimize perseverance. (Find out more here: Perseverance - Possibilities & Pitfalls)

  1. First, she had a specific plan to win Justin over. She evaluated the plan and adjusted when it did not seem to be working. This is Prudence at work!

  2. Second, she measured progress. We can sometimes see progress where there is none (confirmation bias), but setting a measure of success helps, as does having a sounding board – Sarah used her father - to check in with. Someone who can challenge your thinking and give a different perspective. Her father used Judgment (Critical Thinking) and Sarah was open to exploring what was happening and to his ideas (Honesty and Curiosity).

  3. Third, she had other reasons to keep doing the work other than achieving her goal with the horse – there were side benefits. (Perspective, Love and Bravery at work.)

  4. Finally, her alternative use of her time was not more beneficial that trying to tame Justin.

What other strengths can you use to boost or balance perseverance? As with all strengths, Perseverance can be a blessing and a curse! And our other strengths come into play to help us create balance. And when our strengths aren’t enough, we can enlist the strengths of others!