Career Limiting Moves: Habits that undermine employee performance

Career Limiting Moves: Habits that undermine employee performance
By Paul Clifford

Every day that we go to work we have an opportunity to make our mark on the world.  It may only be a small mark for many of us – very few of us get to be the PM or win a peace prize – but the opportunity exists to make things better for ourselves and/or for others; to achieve purpose and meaning. 

The way we approach our day is critical to our success.  Exhibiting the behaviours that result in success is not always clear, nor easy to implement.   Sometimes we have to go through a personal change process to overcome our habits and develop a new set of productive behaviours.  So what are some of the habits that many of us need to overcome if we are to secure success in the modern workplace?   

1.    Reactive aka not taking the initiative

The 21st century workplace is far more fluid than it was 20 years ago.  Organisations expect their employees to be far more adaptable to take on new tasks and challenges at short notice.  Those who will succeed at work in the future are more likely to be employees who identify what the new tasks and challenges will be ahead of time, convince their managers of the need to undertake those tasks, and skill themselves so that they can carry out those tasks competently when the time arrives. This is a very different paradigm to the one many employees are used to. Rather than waiting for a manager to drive change and determine the work that needs to be done, in the future employees will be taking greater control to shape their roles based on reading the strategic tea leaves and influencing their managers about the need for change. Those who don’t take the initiative and instead wait to be told, will be left with far fewer skills, rendering them uncompetitive in the market.

2.    Stubbornness aka failure to compromise

Organisations tend to be places of pragmatism more than so than idealism. However there is a lot of idealistic behaviour that goes on in organisations. The problem is that sometimes idealism results in complete rejection of ideas whilst pragmatism gets 80% of the solution through.  I am a big believer in compromise. I find it is often a highly successful strategy for getting approval for the core features of an initiative I seek to implement. There have many times where my idealism got me nowhere. I’d rather get somewhere.

When negotiating it is important to know the difference between what is essential and what is a nice to have and to be ready to give way to some of the nice to haves if required for the sake of the essentials. I find that idealism can often leave some blind to this important tactic. 

3.    Pride aka refusing help from junior employees     

My experience supervising Masters’ placement students has taught me a lot.  Not just about myself and my leadership and management behaviour.  The students have taught me plenty of technical skills and knowledge. In these situations I have become the student and they the teacher.  To be able to accept that junior employees can teach an experienced employee, particularly in areas that are core to the role of the more experience employee, can be challenging to some. It can lead the experienced employee to question themselves.

“I should know this”. “If I accept help from a more junior employee I am admitting that I am not up to my job”.

My view on that is the reverse.  The more knowledge and skills I can learn the more competent I will be.  I can’t expect myself to know everything and this means learning from others is critical.  Who I learn that from is immaterial.  In my world junior employees are colleagues.  We all have our strengths and areas for development.  We should embrace learning, no matter where it comes from. 

4.    Positioning aka not listening and questioning enough

Sometimes we can fall into the trap of only demonstrating persuading and convincing behaviours, and forgetting about listening and questioning behaviours.  If team members are only ever persuading and convincing each other, discussions can become a contest to see who can win the day rather than an exercise in identifying the best solution.  Positions are often taken by those who feel the need to be right in order to prove their capability.  However, such behaviour limits that person to only what they already know.  By failing to listen and question they deprive themselves of new knowledge which may take them into new and exciting territory. 

The ability to listen and question may challenge those who feel uncomfortable not knowing and exposing a lack of certainty.  However, listening and questioning can be powerful tools to uncover new information and perspectives that may just generate the game changing knowledge you need to create a significant innovation for your organisation.  

5.    Indulgence aka focusing on irrelevancies

If you want to undermine your success one of the best things you can do is to preoccupy your time with unimportant, trivial matters.  These are issues that may on the surface appear worthwhile but do little to help you achieve your major goals. 

Sometimes it's not easy to see that the issue is trivial. Caught in the moment and surrounded by plenty of other operational tasks it can be easy to mistake the inconsequential as critical.  This is why it’s very useful to have a keen awareness at all times of high level objectives.  As each issue comes up it is important to determine its relevance to your major objectives.  If it’s not relevant, dump it. 

6.    Irrationality aka responding with emotion before logic.

One of the toughest things for many is to not let emotion take over.  For me this is one of the most critical skills of any employee and one that can undermine even the best performing staff.  Responding emotionally in a manner that puts others off-side can overshadow the best of achievements, undermining your reputation and your future prospects.  Whilst emotion can be colourful, if it’s not under control it clouds one’s thinking and makes good decisions very difficult. If this becomes a frequent occurrence then longer term performance will suffer.           

Behaviour change is not easy but if like me you are a student of what makes a successful career, you’ll be keen to understand what you can work on to enhance your career.   We shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which habits can be entrenched but the rewards that come from changing our behaviour can be substantial.       


  • Tyson Corrigan Tuesday, 25 November 2014

    Nice article Paul. Daniel Kahnemans book "Thinking fast and Slow" has some great insights on overcoming the tendency to react with emotion before logic. As someone in the early stages of their career this has been a valuable lesson and useful in addressing more complex decisions in the workplace.

  • Paul Clifford Wednesday, 26 November 2014

    Thanks Tyson, will take a look at the book. Good to hear you are thinking about this. As I mentioned it can be tough to keep calm at times so if you are doing that most of the time you are doing well!

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