by Jenny Fernandez and Luis Velasquez
Have you ever felt “in the zone” in your professional life? You’re doing great at work, being recognized for your achievements, and receiving accolades for your potential. Your colleagues are collaborative, and your boss is supportive. The stars are aligned for you to meet your professional goals.
Yet, a few months down the line, you hit a wall, and you can no longer accomplish as much as you did before. You feel frustrated, stuck, confused.
Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon.
Chronic high performers have been found to exhibit instances of acute underperformance. One study analyzing nearly 40,000 360-degree surveys, and more than 9,000 self-assessments of leaders across the globe, showed that 26% of leaders who were rated by their bosses as having high potential were also seen by their bosses as having high risk of career derailment.
As career coaches, we’ve worked with high achievers in all stages of their careers and have come across this scenario often. In most cases, we see derailments occur when employees lack self-awareness and unknowingly practice behaviors that will lead them down a damaging path. Unexpected and involuntary, even the smallest road bumps have the potential to stall, or worst-case, sabotage their job-related aspirations.
Through our work, we have identified three common destructive behaviors that typically stem from much deeper habits. With a little effort, we have also seen that these behaviors can be unlearned.
Habit 1: Playing the victim
Why is my manager such a jerk to me?
I did everything right. Why is this happening to me?
It doesn’t matter what I do. Why doesn’t my team like me?
If you find yourself using these phrases often, then you may have fallen into the habit of playing the victim or making excuses for your failures. We tend to see this occur when people agree to assume responsibility — for a project, a team, a task — but then refuse to accept accountability for any negative outcomes delivered by that project, team, or task.
The problem is, you cannot expect to receive credit for your successes while never owning up to your failures. When you play the victim, you turn people away from you, decreasing your influence, and thus, giving away your power. No one wants to work with or for someone who makes excuses or blames others when something goes wrong. That’s not the mark of a good leader or colleague.
The most significant danger in adopting this mindset is that you may eventually believe that — no matter how hard you try — the odds are against you. As a result, you are less likely to continue learning and more likely to develop a fixed mindset, which is not conducive to growth.
How to let go of excuses
To unlearn this behavior, notice the actions you take and the responses you give when confronted with a challenge. Any time you find yourself focusing on factors outside of your control, pause, acknowledge your negative thoughts, and then try to detach yourself from them.
To move from complaining to positive action, ask yourself, “What am I really committed to here?”
In their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, academics Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan state that behind every complaint, there is an idea, belief, or value that the complainer is committed to. A person complaining that people talk behind each other’s back, for instance, may value the importance of open and direct communication. A person complaining about other people not doing their work may value the importance of initiative and recognition.
Shifting your perspective will allow you to move from complaining to understanding what you can (and can’t) control. Think instead about how you can act on the values driving your behaviors or reactions in a way that benefits your team.
Habit 2: Loving the idea of “busyness”
Do you often hear yourself saying, “My calendar is packed,” “I can’t take a day off,” or “I don’t even have time to eat”? Are you constantly stressed about work, but also obsessed with having too much on your plate? Well, then, you’re probably too busy. What you might not realize is that there is a price you’re paying for this. If you’re always in execution mode, you’re at risk of burning out. You’re not taking enough time to reflect, plan, and strategize how to grow or move forward.
If you’re early in your career, it’s especially important to break this habit. You may not know what that path forward is, and carving out time to explore what your future could look like will allow you to be strategic about choosing where to focus your time at work. What skills do you need to master to get to where you want to go? What projects will help you get promoted?
When you’re always busy, you’re likely being reactive rather than proactive, focusing on your immediate tasks and not the big picture.
Moreover, busyness cuts into the time you need to form relationships with people who are crucial for your growth. Without mentors, sponsors, allies, or a strong network of peers to advocate for your work and connect you with stakeholders, you will lack the influence and social capital you need to excel — both within your current organization and externally. (Not to mention, being too busy for friends won’t help you in the long term either.)
How to carve out time for what is truly important
Be more intentional. Start by scheduling blocks of time on your calendar specifically dedicated to reflection, relationship-building, and learning skills that you believe will help you reach your goals. If you’re unsure about what those goals are, use that self-reflection time to ponder. Research shows that taking time to reflect boosts productivity, as our best thinking happens when we allow our minds to wander. Ask yourself: Where do I want to be a year from now? What work do I enjoy most? What work do I loathe? What skills would I love to learn?
If for some reason, you find yourself unable to make these time commitments, perhaps that should be the subject of your first reflection.
Next, plan to reach out to one new person each week to strengthen your network. Try to connect with leaders in and outside of your organization who have the power and influence to increase your visibility and advocate for you behind closed doors, as well as peers whose work you admire or whose skills, backgrounds, or perspectives may stretch you. Over time, these relationships will have a significant impact on your life and propel your career forward.
Finally, say “no” more often. This is part of learning how to prioritize and focus your limited time on what’s important, not just what’s urgent. Ultimately, it will prevent you from experiencing burnout.
Habit 3: Protecting your comfort zone
Many of us proactively avoid uncomfortable situations, like public speaking or giving constructive feedback to a teammate or manager. As we progress in our careers, we want to show our expertise and the value we bring. Thus, we tend to reduce the probability of our own failure by avoiding risky situations and sticking to what we know. Ironically, doing this keeps us stuck in the same place.
As humans, we are hardwired to avoid risk. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that humans first need to feel safe in order to thrive. However, safety does not equal comfort. Playing it safe not only prevents us from learning; it also limits our ability to execute on our potential. We only learn when we are exposed to new knowledge or experiences.
How to get out of your comfort zone
Reframe failure. Sometimes you succeed; other times you learn. Success is an iterative process that can only happen with many trials, and that means taking calculated risks and going for challenging opportunities, stretch roles, or promotions.
Start by asking yourself: “Am I stretching myself enough and taking calculated risks? Are there opportunities where I can step up?”
You will likely identify a couple of areas where you can put in more work. Begin by doing something small. If you want to take on a stretch role, for instance, volunteer to help on a challenging project. If you want to become a better writer, commit to posting commentary on social media once a week. If you want to develop your people skills, offer to manage the onboarding process for new team members. Every new opportunity has the potential to expand your comfort zone and will give you the confidence to take on more, bigger challenges in the future.
Should you fail at any point, remember that you are not a failure. So the next time things don’t go your way, say to yourself, “I was successful in finding a way that doesn’t work. I was successful at learning something new.”
The impact of our intentions isn’t always positive — and without taking the time to self-reflect — even top performers risk derailing their careers. The goal is to overcome what may be setting you back. Though these habits may initially seem harmless, letting them go will have a significant impact on your personal and professional life. It all begins with taking accountability.