Ten Things You Are Doing That Hold You Back
Subtle habits that make you stumble without noticing
As you read this, there are probably things you are doing right now that are holding back your career. You might not notice most of them. You may get hints in feedback or reviews, but few people will make you aware of these issues directly—usually because they’re uncomfortable bringing them up. However, these invisible habits create big problems. They wear on your relationships, reduce your influence, and block your path forward without you even realizing it.
I am not talking about behaviors that are fundamentally dishonest or unethical. I’m talking about subtle, everyday behaviors—often issues of style or reactions—that you display without being aware of them.
The truth is that I have done most of these things at some point in my career, in both small and big ways. I wrote about a few of them in my recent article on receiving tough feedback. Facing my faults was hard, and I sometimes wonder if I still exhibit these behaviors on a regular basis. That said, becoming aware of the issues was the first step to moving forward. If we don’t understand the behaviors that trip us up, we will never be able to overcome them.
With that in mind, here are ten things you might be doing that are holding you back at work.
1. You are draining.
One of my Stanford GSB professors shared the story of how one of his classes played a trick on him. His students arranged for half of them to smile at him during his lectures, while the other half frowned. They then measured how much time he spent teaching, walking toward, and speaking to each side of the class. He explained that, as the unwitting subject of the experiment, he ended up spending most of his time engaging with the smiling and warm side and ignoring the negative side. The takeaway? If you exude negative energy toward those around you, others will turn away.
I once worked with someone who was completely exhausting to interact with. I dreaded our one-on-ones, because they left me tired and demoralized. This was a brilliant, high-performing PM whose style was to lead through criticism and push hard on everyone. They often felt that others on their team were not good enough or failed to meet their standards. The volume of negative energy this PM created made it hard for me to coach them and help them grow. So much of our time was spent trying to contain the damage they had done to their relationships. It took me a long time to make my feedback stick, and there were times when I almost gave up.
People gravitate toward those who are positive and move away from those who are negative, even if they don’t consciously realize it. You repel opportunities with negativity. Likewise, you can attract them with positivity.
2. You communicate for yourself, not for the audience.
I have been in product reviews where the team used so much jargon that I felt completely out of my depth. It didn’t matter whether it was a product I once owned, or a domain that was completely new; those reviews were so esoteric that I got lost in the weeds. As much as I wanted to, I was unable to get enough context to contribute—or receive—anything of value.
Think back to a meeting where someone used a large number of acronyms or code words that you didn’t know. Not wanting to feel stupid, you probably didn’t want to ask for clarification. Maybe you felt like you were listening to someone speak a foreign language. I once went to China for a series of business meetings with my somewhat-passable Chinese (Note: I speak like a third-grader who has never consumed any Chinese media). Every tenth word or so, I would lean over to my colleague and ask, “What does that mean?” That is what it’s like for someone who is not close to your project to listen to you using terminology and inside references they don’t understand. It’s confusing, embarrassing, and mentally draining. It alienates your audience instead of getting them on the same page as you.
When you communicate what you want to say instead of what the audience needs to hear, you are speaking through your own lens. Focus on landing the message you want to convey, not what the words you use.
3. You train people not to give you feedback.
Sheryl Sandberg once told me that people weren’t giving me feedback because they were afraid I would be upset. And she was right. This was something I had struggled with my whole life. I hated being wrong, and I hated being told I was wrong even more. The problem was that I was subtly training people never to give me negative feedback, because I didn’t react well to it.
When someone gives you feedback, what do you do? Do you respond, or do you react? Do you take it to heart or brush it off? Do you internalize it or explain it away? I struggled with this for years. Even now, this is an area of development for me, and something I need to be cognizant of more than ever. Avoiding feedback, or being resistant to it, is doing yourself a disservice. You’re shutting out the potential to grow and evolve, and your career may suffer as a result. The more receptive you are to feedback, the more you will benefit from it in the long run.
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