If you’ve read my blog or my best selling “15 Minutes to a Better Interview” book – you know I tell it like it is. Concise, to the point, whether you like it or not. No fluff or filler.
Whether you are fresh out of high school or college working your first job, or an accomplished professional with 15 years in, you are likely harming your career without even realizing it. Wondering why you got passed over for that promotion? Weren’t assigned to the hot new project? Are you ignored in staff meetings?
Over 20 years of experience in all types of roles in small and large corporations has given me some hard earned lessons. Lessons I want to share with you now. Things you need to know if you want to have a successful career in any field. Career and job advice you should read – and then make sure you don’t do. I have done all of these over my career – and have learned. Now I want to teach.
So how are you potentially killing your career without knowing it?
- Taking things personally and letting it show
- Exercising poor judgment in a public setting
- Hanging on too long to your ideas
- Focusing more on getting credit versus getting the job done
- Talking too much
- Not asking for help when you need it
- Engaging in gossip
- Engaging in politics
- Not making your boss’s life easier
Now let’s dig in…and really understand why your business career may be stalled or downright dead based on the above 9 items.
Taking Things Personally and Letting it Show
Life isn’t fair. We all learn that at a pretty young age. This extends into the business world. Sometimes your ideas aren’t chosen (even if they are the best), a business makes a bad decision and goes down a wrong path (and possibly makes your life hard for a while), and often incompetent people get promoted or get away with doing little work. Maybe your boss snaps at you in private or public. The list is almost endless of things that can put you in a defensive position if you take anything personally.
This is life. Sometimes decisions made or the way people treat you at work have nothing to do with you. In fact, I would argue most of the time they don’t. But human nature is to assume they do have something to do with you – and you take it personally. Someone is out to get you, you did something wrong, you aren’t respected since your ideas are never chosen, or you feel you are being taken advantage of since the person next to you does half the work and has the same job.
If you go down this path, your behavior changes. You get short tempered, come across as defensive, you start bashing other people ideas, or you begin treating that person next to you badly. In short, you start coming across as bitter, non-cooperative, and possibly even a bad fit for the team regardless of how good your work is. You get a reputation – and not a good one.
So never take things personally. It is far better to assume there are good reasons for decisions, the way people are acting, and how your ideas may not be acted upon. Deflate your ego and stop assuming someone is out to get you. There is no downside to this. And you will be happier if you always have a positive outlook on bad situations. After all, overcoming challenges is what differentiates the best from the worst.
Exercising poor judgment in a public setting
How many times have you heard the phrase “never hit send on an angry email”? Especially damaging is when the email is argumentative or is criticizing or putting someone down. How often have you sent an email like this and more than one person was on the To or CC line? All of us have done it, and most of the time with damaging consequences. Some immediate, and some are long term relative to your perceived reputation.
Here is a prime example I see of poor judgment that occurs over and over again…until the employee [even mine] is no longer with the firm. If you are in a meeting or any kind of group discussion with your boss and/or others higher in the organizational hierarchy than you, never blatantly disagree or put down an idea or approach they are advocating. Even if it is wrong. At best you will be labeled as a disruptive influence, at worst you will be regarded as a non-team player with no respect for the people around you. Your intent is to share information and get people to consider it – however it will not happen with this approach.
Instead, wait until you can meet with your boss privately, and then very objectively outline some key points he/she may have missed that may [or may not] change their mind on their approach. In this way you are supporting your boss by sharing critical information they may not have, but by doing it in a private setting it is not confrontational, it can’t embarrass them, and it gives them the opportunity to position the new information in a manner that doesn’t destroy any previously articulated positions or decisions. In short it enables them to “save face”.
Constructive feedback and new information is welcome in meetings when it is asked for, but tread lightly and carefully and soften the information you are providing so it doesn’t come across as a direct counter to the ideas being discussed. This is good judgment – and it often increases the value of your thinking and position in the minds of decision makers. Want an example?
- Bad: “That idea will never work because it will take too long to train new people in the needed skills.”
- Good: “One factor we need to likely consider is how the training time may impact the implementation of the program.”
See the difference? One way shoots down an idea and puts people on the defensive immediately. The second way surfaces some considerations for review and discussion while still supporting the idea.
Hanging on too long to your ideas
We all have great ideas. Some business ideas are good, some are bad, and some just are timed wrong due to variety of factors. Some of these factors you may not be aware of due to your level, the scope of your position, or for legal or confidentiality reasons. Every company expects dedicated employees to always be looking for better, faster, cheaper ways to do things. However, recognize that if your idea doesn’t seem to be gaining traction or supporters then you should shelve it for now. Never get emotionally attached to a better way of doing things, or a change you think needs to be made in the business.
Change management is a complicated thing, and becoming emotionally attached to any idea [even if not your own] clouds your judgment and ability to be objective, will upset you, and cause all kinds of conspiracy theories to pop into your head.
You can’t change everything, and you can’t change things fast. So reset your expectations and either change your idea or forget about it. But don’t get emotionally attached to it as you will only end up disappointed [best case]. You win some and you lose some – learn how and when to move on with a cheerful face and optimism around the next opportunity to drive change.
Focusing more on getting credit versus getting the job done
Everyone knows this one. How often do you have someone in the office or wherever your workplace is that is blatant about pointing out their contributions, what they did, and in general kissing up to management? The sad part is this can pay dividends in the short term in some companies. However, the majority of the time being visibly focused on getting credit for a project or a job well done will paint you as someone only out for glory and their own self interest – not the company, and not the team at large.
Remember – teamwork is critical, and there will be too many times when you need help and support from your co-workers. Being a credit hound will position others to never want to support you, and in some cases actively look for ways for you to fail. Who cares if you did 90% of the work and someone else gets publicly recognized? Does your paycheck still get cashed?
Over time management will see where true contributions are being made and by whom – you just have to be patient. It is about the company and team’s success, not about you feeling good about yourself due to a short lived recognition or pat on the back. Think long term, and put other interests above your own. Your ego shouldn’t need this kind of stroking. You know what you are capable of, and you know what you did. This should be enough without always looking for that validation and credit from management which will only distance your co-workers.
Talking too much
Really? This can kill you career and prevent you from moving up the ranks in a company? You bet. In fact, the higher up you go, the worse this behavior is. The reason is simple – time is money. If it takes you 15 minutes to provide information that could have been provided in 3, you are not only wasting your time, but the time of everyone around you. Executives are as overworked as you – they need information delivered quickly and concisely so they can process and act on it.
Never assume you have to provide 10 minutes of background before getting to your point. If your audience needs more context they will ask for it – don’t assume they need it. Always be concise and never utter more than 3-5 sentences at once without breaking so people can ask questions or offer opinions etc. I’ve found that when someone is past 5 sentences people tend to tune out, and they begin to devalue the information you’re delivering. Even if the key point is really important, it gets lots in the noise. Make sense?
Not asking for help when you need it
Management will always give you more work than you can handle. Why? Because we are not completely aware of when you are maxed out and overloaded. However, the symptoms begin appearing when projects don’t get done, everything seems to drag on forever, you begin being sullen or non-responsive at work and in meetings, and in extreme cases start to appear as a disgruntled employee. Most managers (including me) fully expect you to push back as your load begins maxing out.
The wrong approach is to say you’re too busy. The right approach is to state that the project could get done quicker if you had some assistance, or you ask for help prioritizing other tasks so you can set expectations on what can be done and when.
All good approaches to this situation start with you asking your manager for help in understanding priorities and outlining needs relative to getting items done faster. This will enable your manager to begin moderating and proactively helping prioritize work over time for you – and will show excellent judgment on your part in terms of ensuring the company priorities are being address in the right order. So ask.
Engaging in gossip
This should be an obvious one. Not so obvious, however, are the implications. If you are gossiping with coworkers about your boss, managers, and other coworkers or people at the company, you must have found a willing audience right? However, if the person you are gossiping to is that interested, odds are they are a gossip as well, which means everything you tell them is very likely to repeated in some form to someone else. And then someone else. And so on. Which means eventually the wrong people will find out what you are saying about them or the company or the work environment etc.
Not only will that affect their view of you as a reliable employee, it also will set their expectation that you can’t be trusted since you “speak out of school” so often. The impact of this is over time you get fewer and fewer important assignments, you’re invited to few and fewer department or project meetings, and over time you become cut out of the loop. Can you blame a manager for doing this?
The gossip train and (possibly distorted) messages that made it back around the company have shown that sharing anything with you can be risky. It also positions you as someone that is negative, as most gossip is not complimentary and often is negative in nature. So don’t do it.
If people get walked out, fired, someone steals something, or vomits all over their desk – whatever it is, don’t talk about it or carry on with other coworkers about the situation. Stay away from others that do. Gossip has no positive outcome associated with it in a work environment other than possibly a momentary feeling of “being part of the group”. However, is this your career or the groups?
Engaging in politics
This is a tough one. I’ve had to deal with politics throughout my career, starting at fast food restaurant when I was 16 all the way to my current role. Anywhere you have humans there will be politics.
People are always looking to get ahead through alliances, empire building, undermining others they see as threats – the list is almost endless. You will never get away from politics. However, I’ve only seen a handful of people in over 25 years that are good at corporate politics. Does it benefit them? If they are good, often it gets them into higher, more powerful positions. However, most often these are the type of people I would never want to have dinner with or invite our families to hang out together.
My strong opinion is if you are really good at this game you have questionable moral and ethical values, and in fact will always put yourself first ahead of anything else. Not the type of person I’d want to be – how could you look in the mirror every morning?
So what do you do? First, never try and point out what is going on to other people or management. The good political players have allegiances and informants in places you least expect. The last thing you want to do is show your hand and come across as an obstacle to their goals. You should focus on your job, the task at hand, and the contributions you can make to the team and the company.
Basically it is like a “keep your head down” strategy, but with awareness. There may even be times when you end up riding the coat tails as the political player moves up the chain – but only because the work you’re doing serves their purpose in some way, shape, or form.
Don’t play games and don’t consciously play into their game. Stay objective, assume at some point others will see what is going on – but don’t stress out if they don’t. Typically the big losers in office politics are the ones that try and play the game and aren’t good at it. Which is most of us. Unless someone is overtly attacking you or trying to undermine you, don’t try and get in their way and get branded as an “enemy” to their ambitions or actions. It all nets out in the end, but this sometimes takes years.
Sometimes politics can be so bad at a company that you may feel forced to take sides or play the game – these are often situations where you should update your resume and look for a better run company. In the long run you won’t be corrupted, and you will eventually find a position, manager, and team that is truly working for the right reasons and not causing collateral damage along the way.
Not making your boss’s life easier
Although this lesson took me a while to learn, and really become apparent when I began reporting to VP and SVP’s, I wish someone had coached me on it earlier. Will it kill your career by itself – probably not. But it will prevent a lot of upward movement if you do the opposite.
It is best explained by an example. Managers are given goals and objectives to hit. Presumably these align and go up the management chain supporting larger and larger business goals at the CEO level. As an employee (whether a manager like myself or an individual contributor), your job is to basically take tasks or objectives given to you by your manager and simply make them happen.
It may not be by yourself, you may have to ask for help, resources, more information, etc. – but the best thing you can do is “solve” this objective and not have to have your manager constantly involved in helping you solve it. Make sense? Kind of like asking a child to go clean their room. If they come down every 5 minutes and ask you if they should move this there, clean this first or last, where should they put something, etc. you eventually get frustrated right? You expect them to go clean their room, and while they are doing that you are accomplishing other things you need done.
The business world is no different. Managers need to be able to hand a task to an employee, and then go focus on other work tasks or objectives, trusting that the employee will basically take care of that task for them and they can check it off their list. You should always have your eyes open for opportunities to take things off your boss’s task list for them and just get them done. This makes their life easier, they don’t need to worry about it, and they assume you will come ask for resources or key questions etc. as needed. Always also be specific about setting an expectation on when you will have this done for them so you become a very predictable contributor to the team and the manager. Over time the manager will feel more and more comfortable delegating bigger and bigger responsibilities to you.
This typically results in promotions, and when your manager gets promoted, moves to a bigger role, or even leaves the company for a new opportunity you will be first on their list as someone they need to take with them. Why? Because you help them achieve the goals they need to solve for – and in a reliable, almost maintenance free fashion. So always be on the lookout for being able to take things off your bosses plate and drive to closure. As a manager it drives me crazy to not have people on my team I can hand items off to without having to basically walk them through how to do it step by step. I expect them to go find the people, resources, and knowledge they need to carry out what I gave them – so I can be freed up to work on other pressing issues.
If I can’t rely on my team to “take things off my plate” and figure out how to solve for them, then I likely have the wrong team.