Ten Self-Defeating Behaviors
by Mark Goulston
Want to Succeed at Work? First Step: Get Out of Your Own
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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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
article was originally featured at Fastcompany.com
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