Break Your Blockers: Five Reasons You May Be Standing In Your Own Way
How to get past what is holding you back
I often meet people who feel stuck in their current jobs. They are not advancing the way they want, and yet they are not getting clear feedback as to why. The vague nature of what they are hearing makes it difficult to identify what they need to do in order to progress.
This can be a confusing and frustrating situation. Here are five common issues that may be hindering your progress in your job, and solutions for addressing each of them.
You are too critical in your own role
I felt stuck at one point in my career when I was neither moving up nor forward. I remember complaining about this to a friend and colleague, who replied, “I think it's because you're too critical to your current role. No one can imagine someone else doing it.”
This was an “aha” moment for me. I had reached a place where I fit my role and scope like a puzzle piece, and it was actually working against me.
This issue happens when you forge your role to be perfectly “you-shaped”. You become the only person who can do the job; thus, any movement upward or onward becomes a detriment to the company. You have trained your manager to rely on you and value your input, to such an extent that they could be forgiven for not wanting to leave a huge “you-shaped” hole in their organization. This discourages them from giving you stretch assignments or opportunities to grow your scope.
This can be particularly problematic. Although you are at your productive zenith, at some point, you may start to feel stuck because you are no longer learning. When I hit this point, I realized that if I wanted to move forward in my career, I needed to work myself out of a job with a strong bench. I had to demonstrate that it was possible for me to take on more and be considered for other opportunities.
You make it look too easy
When I joined as the new head of a fairly large PM team, I worked with a Group Product Manager who was incredible at his job. He did the work of multiple PMs without complaint, and his team and partners loved him. But he was also incredibly unhappy. After we had worked together for several months, he shared his feelings of frustration with me. He was delivering amazing results and shipping products quickly, but he felt like no one appreciated him.
The thing was, he was right. He was underappreciated and undervalued for the work he did. As his new manager, it took me a while to understand why he was in this position. Then I realized the problem: He made his job look too easy.
This PM was making everyone else's life simpler by working harder and arranging things behind the scenes to help everyone else be more productive. He made it look like magic, and his partner teams had no idea how hard he worked to unblock them. I explained that by hiding the complexity of what he did, he was inadvertently making it seem like he wasn't adding value, even though he was actually carrying most of the load. After that conversation, he started to share more of the work he was doing with others. They came to see that his value went far beyond what they had initially perceived.
You are difficult to manage
I have worked with some incredible product managers who were also incredibly difficult to manage. I shared this with each of them directly, usually by saying, “You are an incredible PM. Your return is good, but your investment is high. Your ROI would be substantially better if it required less investment to get the same return.”
Most of the PMs were unsurprised by this feedback, since it was not new. I began working with them on ways to improve their relationships and increase the overall ROI for their managers. Here are a few highlights:
Shifting from bringing problems to bringing solutions: Many employees are great at identifying problems, but pointing out problems to your manager without offering solutions lays the issues in their lap. Multiply that by five or ten similar reports, and it becomes unsustainable.
Instead, focus on bringing solutions along with any problems you report. Let your manager see you offering both constructive feedback and a path forward.
Focusing on the “how” along with the “what”: Managers hate dealing with the fallout of someone who has burned bridges. I have worked with some amazing people who left broken relationships in their wake and caused a great deal of stress to those around them. This diminished the value of their work. A person on my team once said to me, “But I always hit my goals.”
My response was, “At what cost?” Being a strong performer means getting the “how” right as well as the “what”. As you hit your targets, keep a cost-benefit analysis in the back of your mind of what it took to get the result you want so you can assess collateral damage and unintended costs.
Stop overly focusing on promotion or next steps: In the past, I have managed people who constantly spoke about getting promoted. While this is an important topic to discuss, when someone raises it during every 1:1, I have to wonder if they are really focused on the next step more than the work.
Instead of continuously pushing for the promotion, set aside time every quarter to have the conversation, and perhaps arrange a monthly check-in. If your weekly 1:1s are focused more on you than on the work you’re doing, you may be undermining your relationship with your manager.
These are common issues. I myself have gone through periods when my own angst caused me to be difficult to manage. This required my managers to have tremendous patience, but their direct feedback and investment ultimately helped me grow and move beyond the rough patches. For that, I am grateful to them.
You are not delivering
One of my favorite posters at Facebook was a picture of a rocking horse captioned, “Don’t mistake motion for progress.” This is a major mistake that many people make, especially early in their careers. Working more hours on more things doesn't necessarily mean you are having more impact. Really assess what your company values. Does the work you’re doing line up with your organization’s overarching goals? If not, find ways to align with something that makes a meaningful difference. Focus on impactful outcomes, rather than just taking on more work.
One way to do this is to ask yourself, “What is my TPS report?” In the movie Office Space, Peter’s manager keeps asking him to put a cover sheet on his TPS report, rather than focusing on more important issues. What are you doing that is not worth your time and investment, or not yielding results? Whatever it is, move away from it, and focus your time and energy on delivering what matters instead.
You are not communicating
Some of the best people at your company are likely undervalued. Their only mistake? Not communicating what they are doing.
I often ask people why they didn’t celebrate a win or share something that they accomplished. Their answer is always, “I don’t want to self-promote.” But what if you recontextualized it? Instead of framing it as self-promotion, you could instead position it as “communicating my team’s impact” or “celebrating my team’s success”. This simple act of redefining communication is hugely beneficial.
I once worked for a manager who never bothered to share what our team did with the executives. To this day, I am still not quite sure why. I repeatedly urged him to give a bi-weekly update or host a team all-hands, but he felt like those things weren’t worth investing in, so I did them myself on behalf of our team. This led to other teams seeing what we were working on and lending us help. Our updates and wins were widely shared. Ultimately, this helped us build momentum for our work. The difference was not in the substance of what we did, but in who heard about it and supported it.
Over the years, I have experienced all of these issues myself, and have coached countless others on them as well. If you’re feeling stuck, sit down and assess yourself on these five potential pitfalls. Score yourself on each using a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being, “This is not an issue,” and 5 being, “This an acute problem.” Look soberly at the assessment. If you notice one or more challenging areas, make a list of three things you plan to change as a result of this new awareness.
Breaking through when you feel stuck is often a matter of understanding your situation. By identifying what is standing in your way, you can begin actively addressing those issues and finding a path forward.