Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.
One of my closest friends commented to me once that there seems to be two kinds of people in the world: those that got ahead and those that played fair. Although she was rather bitter at the time, her words have stuck with me for years because with every rant, there’s some grain of truth.
While I completely disagree with her sentiment – some of the greatest people I know are in leadership positions, while some of the worst people I know are at the lowest rung of the ladder and will likely never rise an inch – I do agree that there does seem to be a group of people that are quite effective at rising up through organizational ranks and taking leadership positions, while others simply seem to be incapable of that same journey.
While many books, like Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (read my review), focus on the traits of those that are able to get ahead, The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back instead takes the opposite tack, focusing in on behaviors that impede a career rather than focusing on behaviors that accelerate it. As a result, this book speaks directly to a group often overlooked in other career development books – instead of teaching how to press down on the accelerator, this book is about taking the foot off the brake.
An interesting approach, without a doubt, but does it really pay off for the reader? What lessons does this book teach that can be applied in the real workplace? Let’s dig in and take a look.
Looking At The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back
Part 1: The 12 Behaviors That Can Hold You Back
1: Never Feeling Good Enough
I’m often in situations where I know that others around me are much more knowledgeable about and appropriate for the situation than I am, but this is (thankfully) usually a fleeting feeling. When it happens, it’s painful – I feel paralyzed, defensive, and I often just want out of the situation. I usually just nod and agree and inside my gut churns, hoping that I won’t be “found out” for being inferior. I am very thankful that this feeling rarely happens for me, but I do know that it happens for others quite often.
How to battle it The biggest step is to take a long, serious look at yourself, starting with making a list of what you’re doing each time this feeling of inadequacy washes over you. Then figure out things that these items have in common – are there certain situations or certain elements of your life that are continually triggering those feelings of inadequacy? For me, it was rather easy to dig this out – I feel inadequate when I’m the only person in a group that does not have a doctorate, for example. Once you see these underlying patterns, be conscious of them and realize that, quite often, they’re not the big deal that they seem. For example, if I’m invited into a discussion with a group of people with doctorates, I know it’s because they do value my opinion in some area and they welcome my seat at the table; if not, I wouldn’t be in the discussion.
2: Seeing The World In Black And White
There are some people who believe that an idea should always be judged strictly on its merits, and that it should be deemed either good or bad. Politics, emotions, loyalties, and other such issues play no part at all in their decision-making process, and thus they wind up being absolutists, backing unpopular points that don’t benefit the situation as a whole and their perspective and attitude simply do not work in a complex environment. You probably know someone like this (I certainly know a few): they always have a very clear opinion, but it’s drawn solely from objective and measurable facts.
How to battle it Many meritocrats simply don’t want to change at all, so the first step is to ask yourself whether you do want to change. To many people with this worldview, anything other than strictly interpreting the facts is completely unprincipled and wrong and they literally can’t stomach being any other way. If you don’t want to change, don’t. If you do want to change, though, the biggest step is that whenever you begin to rail against a particular injustice, stop and look at that decision from the perspective of other stakeholders. Let’s say, for instance, you’re planning a conference on an issue you care deeply about, but your committee votes to include a big-name speaker that you view as a charlatan and a hack. You might think this is completely wrong and be disgusted that it would happen, but spend some time looking at the conference from the perspective of a potential attendee. They might be more willing to attend with this big name involved, and thus more people would be exposed to the valuable issues you’re promoting. Step back, identify the stakeholders, and look at it from the perspective of each stakeholder before you demand changes.
3: Doing Too Much, Pushing Too Hard
Do you often find yourself frustrated with the lack of effort of others, feeling that they’re simply not pulling as much weight as you do? Are you involved in tons of different projects and often feel as though you’re constantly in the middle of crunch time and that it’s up to you to make it happen? Do you never really feel as though anything is truly done, and that you can always do far better than the results you see? Are you constantly stressed out and constantly demanding more and more from others? You’ve probably got a severe hero complex, and rather than appearing as the person who saves the day to others, you’re likely increasing their stress level as well.
How to battle it The first step is to recognize it – listen to the talk around the office and ask what others think of you. Are you seen as pushy and demanding and often stressed out? Those are clear signs of a problem. One strong technique for getting past a hero complex is to be willing to delegate and trust in the output of others, and the best way to start is to find people who you know produce good work (or, at the very least, produce work that is widely respected by others) and collaborate with them, but instead of being demanding, just rely on the fact that they do produce good work. Eventually, you’ll be able to show yourself that you don’t have to demand things and you don’t have to do it all.
4: Avoiding Conflict At Any Cost
I interact regularly with a person who, whenever conflict appears to be starting, rushes in to try to head it off. She laughs and tries desperately to calm everyone’s nerves, but in the end it actually causes more harm than good, even though the peace is maintained for a short while. Why more harm than good? Most small occasional conflicts are actually healthy: they help all sides consider an issue more carefully and when resolved well can actually result in a better working relationship and more professional respect between the involved parties. A peacekeeper generally is terrified of conflict and thus tries to head off this healthy activity at the pass at every opportunity.
How to battle it If you notice a conflict brewing and your instinct is to stop it, instead bite your lip, allow the conflict to happen, and observe all parties involved. After the immediate conflict, wait a few hours, then touch base with the involved parties in some fashion, either directly about the conflict or indirectly about other work topics. You’ll often find that the emotion of the conflict is reduced and that once everyone has had a chance to think about things, they can be discussed and resolved much more calmly and rationally.
5: Running Roughshod Over The Opposition
In the college dorm, I used to live next door to a very loud and gregarious British fellow who was quite fun to be around if you agreed with him. If you chose to disagree with him, sometimes on even the most trivial of things, he would lose it. We would have meetings and if he made a suggestion that wasn’t universally accepted, he would go berserk, yelling at everyone and making vague threats. It wasn’t long before this fellow was basically ostracized from the rest of the people on the floor – he would participate in activities, but he was never a part of the “group,” as it were. The shocking thing is that such behavior often carries over into the workplace – people with short fuses blow up regularly, intimidate others to get their way, make incessant demands of others, and basically buy into the “knock others down before they knock you down” philosophy. It doesn’t work.
How to battle it Take a look around at every person you’ve blown up at without good reason and then issue a sincere apology to them. If they don’t accept it and actually fire back with a retort, just take it and move on. Then, when you find yourself about to blow up or you’re about to charge into someone’s office and make a demand, stop. If you have a point to make, find a less confrontational route to make that point.
6: Rebel Looking for a Cause
In many organizations, some rebellious behavior is acceptable: isn’t that in essence what “thinking outside the box” is? Yet often people take this behavior too far: the person who ignores the dress code or the person who always finds the need to “speak the truth” regardless of whether it’s appropriate or not. At leat two people popped into my mind as I wrote that sentence; likely, a person or two popped into your mind, too. It’s great to have original ideas, but when those ideas are expressed in ways that are disruptive to the whole process, it’s not a benefit.
How to battle it Realize that by automatically rebelling against the cultural norms of the organization, you’re letting your gut reactions control your life. Then, start observing what everyone else does and try to understand why they do this – usually, most cultural mores have a very sensible reason that can be clearly seen if you put aside your preconceptions and evaluate the situation. For example, let’s say you tend to be the person that always speaks out at meetings and no one else does. It might be that there’s a better way to get that point across than being the big, bad rebel – perhaps having a few closed-door meetings with others might do the trick.
7: Always Swinging for the Fence
The title here refers to a person who is always striving for massive and immediate success – and nothing less than that will do at all. Instead of being satisfied with small successes, he or she always wants to accomplish something incredible, whether it’s realistic or not. This usually means that the person is an incredible risk-taker, far more than the typical entrepreneur. Unfortunately, these risks are so tremendous and the frequency of success so rare that few people will regularly back up this person, meaning that more often than not, he or she won’t get ahead in life.
How to battle it Quite often, this trait comes from a desire for approval, either from a nebulous society or from some specific person. This need for approval underlines all of their behavior and manifests itself as a need for tremendous success. The best way to beat the trait, then, is to figure out what this need for approval comes from and tackle that directly, then focus on the things in your life that have real value to you and put them at the center.
8: When Fear Is in the Driver’s Seat
Every organization has an Eeyore, a person who fears all change great or small. It gnaws at them constantly, driving their actions in countless ways. They generally resist all change and make it very clear that the change, no matter what it is, is bad. This person is often seen as an obstacle in any environment, someone to be worked around rather than someone to be worked with. The end result? This person has less and less influence as time goes on and is eventually left in the dustbin.
How to battle it Every time there is a change coming down the pike that you don’t like, make a list of every positive attribute that this change could possibly bring to the organization. Spend a good amount of time listing these changes and let the trepidation you feel slide to the background for a while. Then, whenever you start to worry about a change, read this list. If this practice still doesn’t ameliorate all of your worries, you may want to bring up your specific concerns with others, but realize that if the benefits clearly outweigh the drawbacks, you should be in favor of the change.
9: Emotionally Tone-Deaf
I have a professional relationship with a certain individual who may be the most emotionally tone-deaf person I have ever met. This person reads others so poorly that it is almost comical, often turning ordinary human interactions into inexplicable events. Even when everyone else in the room is giving tons of cues in a certain direction, this person still often misses the point, going on with their own independent conclusion even when it’s painfully clear that it’s not supported by anyone else. The guy is a wonderful and kind person, but his lack of ability to communicate with others makes it very challenging to work with him.
How to battle it If you’re this person, the best approach to take is to literally work through the exercises in a book like How to Win Friends and Influence People. These exercises, while often mechanical and overly direct, are still effective at bringing about human interactions. Also, take the time to converse with people and rather than just listening to their words, watch how they act, especially when a third person is talking. For many, this comes naturally, but it’s not a natural thing for everyone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either; quite often, people still like you and realize that you have difficulty communicating – it’s usually not a “like or dislike” issue.
10: When No Job Is Good Enough
A while back, I helped an old friend edit their resume, and when I read it I was utterly amazed. The person had held down several very interesting jobs in the last few years, but had stayed at none of them longer than nine months. Yet, when I started asking questions about a few of the specific positions, I was given a description of how some minor little thing had caused him to move on – he could have stayed around and been at the top of the food chain, but the editor was ridiculously demanding, or, in another case, he was all ready to be promoted when suddenly the boss’s brother got hired instead and it became clear to him that “the glass ceiling was in effect.” I was amazed at the trivial things that caused him to move on – and in a way, I sort of felt sorry for him.
How to battle it If this describes you – lots of job-hopping and lots of varied reasons for leaving – you might want to look at professional assistance, as the root cause of this for many is usually a rejection at a key moment in their life, a rejection that most of the time would be trifling for most people, but instead creates a perspective that if everything isn’t perfect, it just isn’t right. I happen to know the person above extremely well and I think he’s actually affected by a breakup when he was in college, but I’m far from a professional.
11: Lacking a Sense of Boundaries
It’s not hard to visualize someone who exhibits this bad habit – think of the old World War II phrase “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” A person who exhibits this habit generally has no concept of personal and professional boundaries and will openly share everything. To a degree, it’s interesting and exciting – the person that does this seems extremely personable and quite open. In fact, at first, they seem like a great asset to the organization. The only problem is that if they learn of any potentially private information and aren’t explicitly told not to speak of it, they will talk about it. Over time, this problem becomes bigger and bigger and bigger until you realize that for all of the benefits, this person doesn’t fit in the organization.
How to battle it If you’re concerned that you express this behavior, the first step is to spend some time really looking at your colleagues and your work environment. Do others talk a lot about their personal life? Do others tell jokes? If you seem to be the only one doing this, it’s likely that your behavior is not really as accepted as you might think it is. Another path may be to find social opportunities outside of work – see if you can identify social groups that you can participate in. Part of the problem may be that you just don’t have a good channel for this energy.
12: Losing the Path
This was perhaps the most interesting of the twelve, because it basically speaks to the quarterlife and midlife crisis that most people feel at some point. I’ve been through this myself, wondering whether or not what I’m doing is the right thing and feeling a general lethargy about my professional life. I got uninterested in taking on projects, networking with others, and following up on leads. Basically, I felt like I had lost the path that had filled me with such excitement not all that long ago.
How to battle it My own battle was much like that described in The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back. I spent some time focusing solely on those aspects that I enjoyed the most about what I was doing and really let the other pieces fall to the side for the time being. After a while, I slowly began to rediscover the things that I loved doing.
Part 2: The Psychological Issues Behind These 12 Behavior Patterns
The final third of the book focuses on a few specific threads that are spread across the twelve habits.
Taking Others’ Perspectives
This tactic solves many of the above problems by itself. Basically, whenever you can, take a moment and look at the situation from someone else’s perspective. Would the choice you’re making make your customers happy? What about other people in the office – is this building a good relationship with them? What about your boss – is this in the long term best interest of the business? It takes practice to really do this well.
Coming to Terms with Authority
Many people have a difficult time accepting authority in their lives. Spend some time looking at how you really feel about every authority figure in your life: your parents, your boss, that cop that gave you a speeding ticket last week. Why do they do the things that they do? In most cases, there’s a good reason for their behaviors towards you – many parents try hard to mold you as a person (both in childhood and adulthood), your boss tries to motivate you to do the best that you can do, and that cop is merely trying to make sure the roads are safe by ensuring everyone follows the same rules and logic on the roadways. I find this works well for me – I can usually swallow authority figures better if I really evaluate the reason behind what they’re doing.
On the other hand, how do you use power? When you have power over someone else, how do you wield it? In general, most people emulate the concepts of power they learned early in life, whether those are wrong or not – if they were in a household with a dominant figure, they try to dominate, for example. The truth is that power is best used in moderation. I’ve had three supervisors I’ve actually liked in my life, and they all three did many of the same things. In general, they simply did not wield their power – they would suggest things to do, but generally they allowed me the freedom to do as I want and say what I want. When they needed to use power to correct course, it was swift and hard and then things returned to normal. In other words, power was not something to be wielded as a weapon – it was a tool.
Looking in the Mirror: Examining Your Self-Image
Another major component of solving the bad habits is examining your own self-image. A healthy self-image is one that is positive but leaves room for improvement. If you don’t feel that you need improvement in some area, you’re likely seen as arrogant and egotistical by others. Try focusing on those attributes that others have that you do not – could you not strive to take some of the good characteristics of Gandhi, for example? On the other hand, if you see mostly negative things about yourself, you probably put off a very negative image to others as well. If this is you, try focusing on the good things about you, even if the number is small, and then working one by one on the negative things – this tactic works well for me.
A Checklist For Change
One big feature of this book that I liked is that all of the positive exercises in the book are collected at the back as a list. Once you’ve read the book, this list can be a valuable reference for working on various behaviors.
Buy or Don’t Buy?
I will admit that part of the reason that The 12 Bad Habits That Hold Good People Back surpassed my expectations is that I didn’t have a strong positive perspective on it at the start. I didn’t think it would speak to me – I expected dryness. It looked quite long (it is longer than many personal development books). Adding the factors together, I figured it would be a book I would struggle to finish – or even get halfway through. Instead, I devoured it in three sittings.
If any of the above behaviors spoke to you in some fashion, either as something you do or something expressed by someone close to you professionally, buy this book. I only provided a brief overview of the useful content on each behavior – there’s much more for each one inside the covers, and it’s valuable advice.
As for me, I actually saw glimmers of two habits in myself and I’m working on correcting them as I type this.