Are you sabotaging yourself?

Careers  Leadership
20 May, 2019

High achievers can unwittingly become their own worst enemies. Here’s how to stop that self-fulfilling prophecy in its tracks.

I was recently speaking to one of our leaders who was struggling to make headway in his new role. He was very bright and had a good track record. However, he was not being able to adapt to the requirements of his new role. His “inner demons’ continued to haunt him and he was not delivering the expected results.

“Self-sabotage”, as the term suggests, means unknowingly or unintentionally getting in the way of your own success – which, strangely, happens to be a common behaviour among high achievers and leaders. As the founder of IQ Matrix, Adam Sicinski, puts it:

Self-sabotage not only prevents you from reaching your goals but also plays the part of a safety mechanism that protects you against disappointment…your brain is protecting you from getting hurt by doing what it thinks is best — which is to keep you within the confines of your comfort zone.

Self-sabotage can stop you from achieving your full potential at the workplace. So, this week, my message focuses on how you can recognise and address self-destructive behaviours, in order to prevent them from derailing your career.

If you feel inadequate to the task, you might try to sabotage yourself before you actually have a chance to fail. Self-controlled failure can feel more attractive than letting the situation play out and risk being surprised.

Here are some of the common fears that drive self-sabotage, particularly among leaders:

  1. Fear of being exposed – Feeling like a fraud at the workplace makes you constantly afraid of being called out. You may also stop yourself from seeking clarity on important issues because you suspect it would make people question your credibility.
  2. Fear of losing control – If you feel inadequate to the task, you might try to sabotage yourself before you actually have a chance to fail. Self-controlled failure can feel more attractive than letting the situation play out and risk being surprised. You fool yourself into thinking that at least this way you’re in charge.
  3. Fear of emotions – Many intellectually capable people have a huge fear of dealing with emotions and negotiating interpersonal relationships. This manifests as poor people skills that keep leaders from reaching their full potential.
  4. Fear of rejection – Most of us have a tough time handling rejection. In anticipation of being turned down, some people simply choose not to try in the first place. An example of this would be not asking for resources even when you know you can’t accomplish your goal without them.

When you constantly think of yourself as incapable and likely to fail, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In How to avoid self-sabotage and be the leader you need to be, Sebastian Salicru offers a good example:

The self-designated impostor expects to be caught and found out. They begin avoiding situations where they could be exposed as incompetent: procrastinating by avoiding decisions, missing deadlines, and arriving late to meetings. This behaviour will be noticed and talked about by peers, which will further reinforce the belief of not being up to the task. This is a vicious circle, which if left unchecked can lead to self-sabotage, pessimism, under-performance.

Fortunately, the cycle can be broken. Here are five insights to help you recognise and deal with your self-sabotaging side:

1. Identify your preferred self-sabotage

Self-destructive habits can be difficult to break, especially because you may not even be aware of the ways in which you’re undermining your own success and wellbeing. One clue is that nothing seems to be working, no matter what you do – this could indicate that you’re unknowingly sabotaging yourself. Do any of the following behaviours ring a bell?

  • Procrastination – putting things off until the last minute
  • Conflict avoidance – failing to resolve interpersonal issues and give necessary feedback
  • Negative self-talk – constantly criticising yourself, obsessing over mistakes
  • Perfectionism – holding yourself to an impossible standard, waiting for ideal conditions
  • Passivity – not asking for things you need and want, including resources, projects, promotions
  • Overthinking – over-analysing each and every issue to the point of paralysis
  • Poor health habits – stress eating/skipping meals, ignoring doctor’s advice

2. Investigate your behaviour

In How Extraordinary Leaders Transform Self-Sabotage Into Success, Christine Comaford explains that when you first begin a behaviour, it usually has an Intended positive outcome. However, when the negative outcome starts to outweigh the positive outcome, the behaviour becomes self-destructive. For example, scolding yourself for mistakes may have been a version of tough self-love, meant to motivate you to learn and do better. However, now it might be holding you back by damaging your self-esteem and trapping you in a loop of self-blame (rather than growth).

So, ask yourself: What am I really trying to accomplish through this behaviour? What is my core motivation? And am I getting the results I want? Once you identify your primary outcome, you can update the strategy for achieving it. For example, if your goal is to learn and grow, replace the negative self-talk with a daily learning habit, a mentor, a training programme, an upskilling road map, etc.

3. Focus on interpersonal skills

One of the most common ways in which high achievers trip themselves up is overlooking the importance of people skills. Having had your intellect carry you through most of life, you may fail to hone your emotional intelligence, viewing relationships and diplomacy as peripheral rather than core skills. As a result, you unwittingly handle interpersonal equations in a manner that undermines your leadership: avoiding conflict, delivering feedback in hurtful ways, not addressing your team’s fears, or failing to resolve festering issues until they finally explode.

As former clinical psychologist Alice Boyes explains in 5 Ways Smart People Sabotage Their Success, published in the Harvard Business Review,focusing on your greatest strength (intellect) without addressing your weakness (emotional intelligence) is a form of self-sabotage. Boyes advises using the former to hone the latter:

If you’re good at learning you can simply learn the skills that don’t come as naturally to you. You don’t need a personality makeover, you just need a game plan and a genuinely constructive attitude. For instance, identify three specific workplace diplomacy behaviors that would improve your success in that area.

4. Switch your thinking to motivate instead of ruminate

In the Harvard Business Review article, Don’t Sabotage Yourself, Susan David notes that we often dwell obsessively on past failures and future obstacles, which traps us in a cycle of overthinking and inaction. She recommends using “what-ifs” and “if-onlys” to help you generate goals instead of excuses:

Research shows that the thinking people engage in during self-handicapping can just as easily be flipped to be motivational. When you ponder what could have gone better, or recognize obstacles in your way, you generate valuable information. Identify factors within your control, and see what you can do about them. 

5. Get comfortable with imperfection

One of the biggest drivers of self-sabotage is a deep-seated inability to handle failure. As the saying goes, If you wait for perfection, you’ll never get anything done. This is a key learning for our company right now, since we’re focused on building a culture of creativity and growth. Rapid innovation calls for decisiveness and bold action – both of which are impossible if we sit around waiting for the stars to align just so or aim for 100% perfection in the first go.

A necessary side-effect of innovation is failure and, as leaders, it’s imperative for us to see this as an acceptable – even a good – thing. Extend this thinking not just to yourself, but also to your teams. Those of us who are perfectionists must teach ourselves to take failure in our stride and learn from it constructively, otherwise we will be paralysed by indecision and self-criticism.

Do any of these self-sabotaging habits ring a bell? If so, don’t put off dealing with them – they can have serious repercussions on your career and leadership. Start working towards breaking the self-fulfilling prophecy right away.


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