Watch out for your CLHs!

27 March, 2017

Identify and address your professional Achilles’ heel before it trips you up

One of the key areas that inhibits many leaders to progress in their careers is the inability to act strategically. While a lot of managers are very good at managing teams and executing and delivering short-term results, they struggle to step back and think big picture – to define the longer-term strategic agenda, articulate choices and lay out a bolder ambition. Their excessive pre-occupation on the short-term comes in the way.

An excessive fixation on the short term, in fact can become a career-limiting habit (CLH). 

So, what is a career-limiting habit? An ingrained flaw of sorts, that can work against us at crucial points in our professional life, stunting our growth and holding us back from tapping into our full potential – unless we can learn how to change it.

When you are being considered for a promotion or a new opportunity, for example, your weakness could tip the scales against you, acting as a red flag for the decision-makers. A career-limiting habit can make all the difference between an average and a great working life. It could lead to less-than-ideal results, unhappy teams, career stagnation, and reduced job satisfaction, among other things.

Research done by Joseph Grenny, author of Change Anything, with his firm VitalSmarts, suggests than an overwhelming majority (97 per cent) of us have at least one career-limiting habit.

My message this week is on being honest with yourself on your CLHs and what you could do about it.

Apart from an excessive short-term focus, here is Greeny’s list of some of the other career-limiting habits that keep people from achieving their optimum professional growth. Do any of them ring a personal bell?

  • Unreliability
  • “It’s not my job”
  • Procrastination
  • Resistance to change
  • Negative attitude
  • Disrespect
  • Selfishness
  • Passive aggressiveness
  • Risk aversion 

The irony is that many of us are probably aware of our Achilles’ heel. You’ve probably received feedback on it for years through performance reviews, informal chats, and advice from well-meaning colleagues or mentors. In spite of this self-knowledge, only 10-20 percent of us are able to break the habit and make meaningful changes. Why is this so? In his article, Turn Career Limiting Habits into Career Success, Joseph Grenny, addresses this failure to change:

“Our research on personal change shows the problem is rarely that we don’t want to change. The problem is that we have a naïve view of what shapes our behavior. This naivety leads us to rely too much on our willpower while doing too little to surround ourselves with the other sources of influence required to help us change.”

According to Grenny, too many people fall into what he calls “the willpower trap” by thinking that simply the determination to change is good enough. Unfortunately, this usually isn’t the case. The overwhelming belief in “I can do it!” as the be-all-and-end-all source of change keeps us from employing other, more effective strategies.

So, what are some of the other ways in which you can put an end to your career-limiting habit(s)? Here are seven practical suggestions:

1. Break down your habit into behaviours

Each negative habit is actually a series of choices and decisions. For example, if you are resistant to change, this may include refusing to conduct meetings according to new protocols, adhering to old ways of providing feedback, chatting with likeminded colleagues about bringing back the good old days, and not getting on board with new technologies. As a first step, you need to identify the tangible behaviours that constitute your career-limiting weakness. Write them down to give yourself a good starting point for transformation—this will create clarity in your mind about what exactly you need to tackle, instead of thinking in abstractions like “I should be more open to change”.

2. Transform your thought process

It’s not enough to simply fight and overcome the strong impulses that feed your habit—this doesn’t lead to lasting change. Instead, you need to actually change the way you think. For instance, if your personal battle is against disrespect, the goal should be to cultivate a better sense of empathy and respect towards others, instead of simply resisting the urge to be rude and snappish. Examine your own thought process: Do you see others as less worthwhile than you? Why do you feel they are not deserving of your respect? Does the situation really call for behaviour that shows down and hurts the other person? Challenge your default impulses every time they come to the fore and work towards curing the source of the problem, not just its symptoms.

3. Surround yourself with good influences

In most de-addiction programmes, participants are advised to steer clear of those who encourage their downwards spiral. The same goes for career-limiting behaviours. Peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing; it can often be a catalyst for improvement. If your personal flaws include negativity and cynicism, for example, you may have a natural tendency to spend time with others who think the same way. A group of naysayers and complainers only serve to reinforce one others’ negative world views. Instead, make a conscious decision to be around people who have the kind of mindset you want to cultivate. Seek out colleagues who look on the bright side of things, display a solution-oriented approach, and make the best of difficult situations. In a circle where positivity is the norm, your own negative tendencies will slowly undergo a change.

4. Ask for tough love

You can also identify those who mean well but act as enablers, and ask them to get tough on you. Does your manager make excuses for your negative behaviour and shield you from criticism? Do your friends in office justify your unwise choices? They may think they are being kind by cutting you slack, but they are in fact making it more difficult for you to battle your weakness. Tell your closest circle at work what you are trying to accomplish and request them to hold you accountable to the new standards you have set for yourself. Sure, you may initially feel bad when they do so—but in the long run, they’ll be doing you a big favour.

5. Learn the skills you need

Breaking an old habit often demands forming a fresh habit alongside—and for this, you might need to learn new skills. First, identify the root of your problem. If unreliability or procrastination is your demon, ask yourself why this is the case. Do you find yourself unable to manage your time effectively, thus missing deadlines? Or do you take on an unreasonable amount of work, losing interest along the way? Do you put off tasks due to fear of boredom? Or are you getting side-tracked by micromanaging issues that don’t really require your attention? The answers will provide insight into which skill you require, be it time management, personal motivation, saying no to unnecessary tasks, or not being a micromanager.

There are so many resources are available to you if you want to hone your abilities, from insight-packed books and articles, to online training courses, and in-person coaching. Get proactive about building the new skills you need: explore your options, sign up for programmes, and ask the organisation for help if you need it. Don’t wait around for someone else to come up with the idea—your professional growth and happiness are at stake.

6. Put up reminders

The very space you work in and the tools you use can play an important role in breaking your career-limiting habit. If you are guilty of being unwittingly selfish, for example, why not put a few reminders of your team in the office—a photo from that great team dinner, the trophy you won for that successful group project, or the birthday card filled with their good wishes? These will act as ever-present reminders for you to consider the well-being of your colleagues along with your own objectives. If, on the other hand, you tend to have a short-term focus, then include items that force you to take the long view. You could create your personal vision for the future and write down your most cherished long-term goals. Place these in a highly visible place so they are constantly in your thoughts, motivating you to shape your behaviour accordingly.

7. Start acting

Any strategy will only take you up to a point—and practice will take you the rest of the way. You need to be strategic about this: it’s not enough to decide, “I’ll practice this new habit more regularly”. Take the next step by adding it into your schedule and writing it down in your calendar. If you’re procrastinating, pencil in a couple of hours of focused work, free of social media and other distractions. If you think you’re being selfish, fix a slot in which you choose to do something for the good of your team—act as mentors, create useful resources, offer assistance to a struggling member, etc. If you’re trying to overcome the “it’s not my job” philosophy, dedicate an hour each week to doing something important that falls outside your scope of work. Create regular practice windows within your day to get familiar with the new habit you’re trying to build. When you complete a short-term goal, reward yourself—a great way to keep the personal motivation going. With time, your old behaviours will fall away and the new habit will solidify.

Do take the time this week to think through what could be holding you back and what you really want to do to change it. Like Grenny puts it:

The difference between the career you’ve got and the one you want likely is just one or two bad habits. If you learn to think more carefully about the causes of your behavior, you’ll be far more successful at changing it.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


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