Ten Self-Defeating Behaviors to Avoid
by Mark Goulston

Want to Succeed at Work? First Step: Get Out of Your Own Way

Everybody here has the ability to do anything I do and much beyond. Some of you will and some of you won't. For those who won't, it will be because you get in your own way, not because the world doesn't allow you. - Warren Buffett, speaking at the University of Washington about achieving success.

What did Buffett mean by saying "you get in your own way"? For one thing, I believe he meant that when you take things too personally you lose objectivity. Then, when you react or respond to a situation based on your having been too subjective, you compound the problem. Add to that your ego's difficulty in acknowledging having made a mistake. Or even more challenging: admitting to others and yourself that as certain as you thought you were was as wrong as you turned out to be and you've really dug yourself into a hole.

If you're a smart leader, why do you engage in such self-defeating, counterproductive behavior? It is because every now and then you react like other human beings to distress. Distress is different than stress. Stress is actually good for you. It pushes you to your limit to see what you're made of and enables you to test your mettle against the challenges in the world. When you’re under stress you still remain focused on your near- and long-term goals.

When stress becomes excessive (i.e., too much coming at you too soon from too many directions), you become overwhelmed and cross over into distress. When you're distressed, your focus becomes finding immediate relief and you lose your grip on the goals you're targeting. It's then, when you shoot from the hip instead of your head, that you do something hasty and end up shooting yourself in the foot.

If these patterns repeat themselves enough, they develop into self-defeating behaviors that can become "hard wired" as part of your personality.

What are some of the most common self-defeating behaviors that you as a leader might engage in that will sabotage your success?

  1. Thinking you're indispensable: If you own your business (and have not developed people to take your place, i.e., don't have an exit strategy), you may be indispensable. However if you're in a leadership position in a public company or someone else's business and you think that a board or executive team won't replace you because you'd be so hard to replace, you might want to think again. Nobody is irreplaceable.

  2. Talking over or at others: When you do this, you trigger frustration and resentment. Instead of pumping people up, you run over or agitate them. In either case their motivation is replaced by a desire to resist or rebel. Why would they want to make you successful when you dehumanize them and treat them like a function instead of a person?

  3. Not listening: You frustrate people by making them feel that whatever they have to say is unimportant. In this case, rather than being rebellious, they stop trying because they feel that if you don't care about what's important to them, why should they care about what's important to you.

  4. Not delegating: If after you tell people to do something you don't get out of their way and let them do it, they will begin to second guess themselves (or, more accurately, not know what the heck you want from them), which will cause them to stall. When you see their hesitation (which you caused by micromanaging them), it will make it even more difficult for you to let them run with the ball.

  5. Using jargon: If something is important enough for people to understand, it's important enough to make it understandable. Using jargon with people who don't understand it will make this difficult and rarely will they feel comfortable enough to tell you they don't follow what you're saying.

  6. Being afraid to fire people: One of your greatest responsibilities as a leader is terminating people who are incompetent, unproductive and destructive to a company. There are few things that earn or lose the respect of people in your company more than living up to or shirking this responsibility. And don't kid yourself. Everybody's watching.

  7. Fear and avoidance of giving performance reviews: Giving performance reviews can be daunting. They require being clear and specific about what people need to do to improve and then following through to make sure they've done it in their next review. Too often you know the results you want from your people as opposed to how your employees should go about getting those results. As a result you will too often do these reviews in a pro forma way rather than using them as they're meant to be used -- as vehicles for improving performance.

  8. Fear of confrontation: The more focused you are on using your rational faculties and analytic skills to set goals and develop plans for reaching them, the more your ability to deal with emotional tumult can wane if not actually atrophy. Research by Drs. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves at Talentsmart has demonstrated that emotional intelligence increases as you go up the chain of command to the senior V.P. level and then deteriorates in executives and leaders above that. That may be due to high-level executives needing to "execute" strategies and, in order to do that, regarding employees more as functions than as people. The resulting negative emotional reaction by your people to being treated this way can sometimes blindside you. You may react by adopting a bunker mentality and avoiding the necessary confrontations to keep your company on track.

  9. Fear of failing: As you become older the fear of making a mistake can become greater than your desire to do something right. It can have a corrosive effect on your confidence and can allow doubt to metastasize through your decision-making ability. Over time it will cause you to become too tentative to takes the necessary risks in order to help your company flourish and grow.

  10. Not getting buy-in: When what you say and do doesn't make sense, feel right, or seem doable to your people, they will buy out instead of buying in to what you want them to do. They may nod in agreement to your face, but unless they truly buy in they are not going to follow through in the way you hoped they would.

What can you do if you are getting in your own way with these or other self-defeating (and success-defeating) behaviors? It is a matter of always recognizing and then dealing with reality as it actually is, rather than what you think it to be. To do this, seek out, hire, and follow the input of the most able and brightest people possible. Ronald Reagan said, "Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don't interfere as long as the policy you've decided upon is being carried out." We might add: Surround yourself with trusted people who are not hesitant about letting you know when you're getting in your own way and then nudging/kicking you to get back on track.

Mark Goulston is senior vice president of emotional intelligence at Sherwood Partners , a Palo Alto, California-based turnaround and growth consulting firm. Author of Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior (Perigee, 1996), Goulston is also a professor at UCLA. For more information visit: www.shrwood.com.

This article was originally featured at Fastcompany.com .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Mark Goulston. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading