Is there a fault in fault-finding?Fault-finding happens when someone identifies and points out mistakes, flaws or problems, focusing on what is wrong rather than what is right or effective.
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Failing to identify faults seems to be a prevalent issue nowadays, considering recent reports of quality control problems at Boeing and numerous recalls by car manufacturers, to name a few. Yet, excessive fault-finding occurs when the ability to pinpoint faults, which is a beneficial behaviour, is taken too far. This can become detrimental if not properly managed.

Fault-finding happens when someone identifies and points out mistakes, flaws or problems, focusing on what is wrong rather than what is right or effective. It can be taxing for those at the receiving end and painful for those exercising it.

What is the psychology behind fault-finding and how can we successfully tackle this behaviour?

Hidden purpose

In many instances, fault-finding can be a beneficial behaviour. Some individuals seek out faults in themselves or others to establish a sense of control in an unpredictable environment. By identifying flaws, many believe they can avoid or minimise adverse outcomes. Others engage in fault-finding to identify areas of weakness for self-improvement and to facilitate growth for themselves or those they are trying to help.

Fault-finding can be seen as a symptom of the fear of failure, with individuals meticulously scrutinising themselves or others to prevent errors and mitigate potential setbacks. Those grappling with low self-esteem may find and highlight their own faults to seek reassurance and affirmation from others, thus validating their self-worth. Fault-finding can also act as a coping mechanism, providing temporary distraction from internal struggles such as feelings of inadequacy or anxiety. In a competitive environment, fault-finding may also arise from a desire to assert superiority or meet societal standards. Over time, fault-finding can become ingrained as a habitual response to stress or discomfort, even when its practical usefulness is limited.

However, fault-finding is only constructive or healthy in some instances. Even when it seems rational to those engaged in it, when overdone, fault-finding can have negative consequences. Constant focus on mistakes or flaws can create a hostile and stressful environment, as well as damage relationships and self-esteem. In addition to affecting personal well-being, it can stifle professional growth by demotivating individuals, hindering creativity and innovation, and impeding effective problem-solving. The adverse consequences of fault-finding occur when it becomes prejudicial or excessive – even if it served a meaningful purpose in the past.

Personality factors

Individuals who are more prone to finding faults tend to exhibit common traits and tendencies. Perfectionists hold themselves and others to exceptionally high standards, struggling to accept imperfections or mistakes no matter how small or insignificant. Critical thinkers risk focusing excessively on faults and the negatives at the expense of overlooking the positives. Those with a low tolerance for uncertainty or a high need for control are uncomfortable with ambiguity and try to regain a sense of control and certainty by pinpointing and rectifying perceived flaws. In addition, insecure people may constantly seek faults to avoid criticism from others.

While attention to detail is generally commendable, an obsessive focus on finding faults may signal deeper issues such as anxiety. Indeed, faultfinders may perceive the world as inherently threatening or hostile, and as a result, constantly scan for potential dangers or flaws. This can lead to conflicts or strained relationships.

To generate positive outcomes, fault-finding is more constructive when done with tact and diplomacy. With more empathy, individuals are more likely to look beyond their own needs and consider the impact of their criticism on others when highlighting faults.

Also read: Getting into “the zone” isn’t about perfection, it’s about uncertainty

Root causes

The root of fault-finding may reside deep in our childhood. Although childhood experiences can vary widely, some common elements contribute to the development of fault-finding patterns. Of these, parental influence is an important factor. For example, attachment issues or inconsistent caregiving during childhood can foster long-lasting feelings of insecurity and low self-worth. Children turn to fault-finding behaviours as a defence mechanism against perceived rejection or abandonment.

Moreover, children often model the behaviour of significant adults in their lives, including fault-finding or perfectionistic attitudes in their parents or caregivers. Without fully understanding its impact, they may mimic this pattern and eventually adopt these behaviours themselves.

Similarly, high expectations imposed by parents, teachers or authority figures can cause children to believe their worth is contingent upon meeting unrealistic standards. In particular, when children do not receive adequate validation or praise for their efforts and accomplishments, the pressure to excel and avoid failure can cause them to develop a critical mindset.

It’s important to recognise that childhood experiences are complex and fault-finding behaviour can stem from a combination of factors. Understanding the underlying factors that contribute to these tendencies can help individuals address and change these behaviours in adulthood through efforts to increase self-awareness and promote personal growth.

A CEO case of fault-finding

One of our co-authors (Andreas Janz) recently coached a CEO who demonstrated a pervasive fault-finding pattern fuelled by his strong desire to be the number one throughout his career. He leveraged his relentless need for self-improvement as a strategy, seeking out his weaknesses and “faults”.

The CEO’s defining personality traits were his strong need for control to ensure the best possible outcomes and his fear of failure. Fault-finding made him constantly worry about what could go wrong and to try to control it. In other words, the CEO had gone overboard in fault-finding to the extent that it disrupted his well-being – specifically, he had difficulty sleeping well.

We traced the CEO’s exceptionally high standards to two critical aspects of his personal history. First, he grew up with a highly inspiring and capable grandfather, who was his hero and role model. In addition, his strict religious and Prussian values were dominant in his upbringing.

Over time, it was possible to help the CEO manage his impulse to find faults excessively. First, we helped him become more aware of his fault-finding patterns and how to focus on recognising people’s strengths to keep these tendencies in check. Then, we invited him to practice gratitude and empathy daily, seeking systematic feedback in professional and personal environments. Together, these activities helped him manage his fault-finding tendencies and improved the quality of his decisions.

Curbing fault-finding

There are concrete actions one can take to tackle fault-finding tendencies. Here are eight steps to cultivate a more balanced perspective and healthier habits.

  • Gain awareness: The first step is to acknowledge your tendency to find faults. Pay attention to your thoughts, emotions and behaviour in various situations to identify when you’re engaging in this pattern.
  • Practice self-compassion: Be kind and understanding towards yourself, especially when you make mistakes or fall short of your own expectations. Treat yourself with more compassion. Accepting oneself will have a direct impact on your ability to accept others.
  • Challenge negative thoughts: When you catch yourself focusing on faults or negatives, challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself if there are alternative explanations or perspectives that you might have overlooked. Practice reframing situations in a more balanced way.
  • Practice gratitude: Cultivate a habit of gratitude by regularly reflecting on things you appreciate or are thankful for. This habit can help shift your focus away from faults and towards positives in your life.
  • Develop empathy: Try to understand others’ perspectives and motivations. Recognise that everyone has strengths and weaknesses; nobody is perfect, including yourself. Practising empathy with others can help you be less judgmental and more compassionate.
  • Set realistic standards: Reflect on whether your standards for yourself and others are realistic. While it’s important to strive for excellence, perfection is unattainable and can lead to unnecessary stress and dissatisfaction.
  • Focus on solutions: Instead of dwelling on faults or problems, focus on finding solutions and taking constructive action. Channel your energy into making improvements rather than criticising.
  • Seek feedback: Ask trusted friends, family members or colleagues about your behaviour. Be open to constructive criticism and use it as an opportunity for personal growth.

Changing ingrained patterns of thinking and behaviour takes time and effort, so be patient with yourself as you work towards becoming more accepting of yourself and others. Remember: Focus on progress, not perfection.

Horacio Falcão, Professor of Management Practice in Decision Sciences at INSEAD. He directs the INSEAD executive education Negotiation Dynamics program and co-created the two new INSEAD negotiation certificate programs: Online Certificate in Negotiation and Advanced Certificate in Negotiation.

[This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge, the portal to the latest business insights and views of The Business School of the World. Copyright INSEAD 2023]

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