You could be the brightest and most capable person on the team—the quickest learner, the most persuasive salesperson, and the hardest worker. But no matter how great you are at your job, there are a few career pitfalls that are easy for any professional to encounter—often, without even realizing it!
So, if you’re bright and productive, but you can’t figure out how other people are getting raises and promotions while you, well, aren’t, take a look at these three professional faux pas and see if (and how) you need to up your workplace game.
Mistake #1: Forgetting That You Were Hired to Make Your Boss Successful
My client, Isabella, was struggling at work. And, as in so many of my client conversations, eventually it came down to the topic of her boss: Isabella struggled with her manager’s work style, personality, and insatiable attention to detail. These differences were starting to irritate her, and she was quickly becoming disengaged with her work, to the point that she was dreading each day.
Before going any further, I asked if she remembered why she’d been hired in the first place. “You were hired because your boss believed you were capable of making him more successful,” I explained. “In fact, your number one job is to make your boss a raving success.”
She thought about that for a minute. And she admitted she had totally lost sight of that concept.
It’s easy to get caught up in the differences you have with your manager when it comes to communication style, personality, and expectations—and you can easily find yourself butting heads instead of focusing on getting the job done. But at the end of the day, that’s why you’re there: to help your boss get the job done.
When working with a tough boss, it’s key to try to remove your personal feelings from the relationship. In fact, think of yourself as an independent contractor and your boss as a client—someone you have to get along with and make successful no matter what. This will help you depersonalize your relationship instead of focusing on your differences.
If you have a big gap in working styles or expectations, it’s important to discuss them and find some common ground, so you can figure out how to work together. Isabella got out of her comfort zone and asked her manager if they could discuss their working differences. She explained that she wanted to help make him more successful, but wasn’t sure she was always hitting the mark. As often happens in these situations, her manager was open to a conversation, he was able to explain his expectations, and she was able to reframe her perception of his behavior. By facing the issues head-on, you’ll shift your focus from your grievances to creating mutual success.
Mistake #2: Confiding in HR
I once had a client, Jason, who was having a hard time getting acclimated to his new job. His manager was very tough on him, not to mention that they came from different generations and had different personalities and work styles.
He wanted to go to HR to complain about how his boss was treating him. And he wouldn’t be alone in thinking that’s a good plan of attack—many employees think HR is the go-to solution when you have an issue in the workplace.
But the truth is, HR isn’t the office referee, unless there is serious bullying or a potentially litigious situation going on. The HR department exists, among other reasons, to protect the company from being sued because of workplace-related issues. Yes, it’s also there to make sure you get the benefits you’ve been promised, but ultimately, HR is an agent of the organization.
As a result, it’s not guaranteed that anything you share with HR representatives will be treated confidentially; their decision to share information is made with that mission in mind. Worse, going to HR to unload your list of grievances can easily target you as a problem employee who can’t seem to figure things out on his or her own.
If you’re having an issue with a manager or co-worker, work on resolving it directly. Yes, dealing with conflict, having difficult conversations, and working with abrasive people is tough, but it's unfortunately part of work—and life. You don’t have to do it alone, though—if you’re stumped by a certain person or situation, find a trusted co-worker or mentor to help guide you through.
(Note: There are some legitimate reasons to consult with HR, like if you’re being singled out, harassed, or bullied in the workplace, have questions about HR programs such as leave, vacation, or benefits, or want information on the organization’s strategy for career development. Just use sound judgment and go in with a clear understanding of where the departmental loyalty lies.)
Mistake #3: Mistaking Critical Negativity for Thought Leadership
Often, when you’re new to an organization, you’re excited to bring your ideas to the table to demonstrate your value. You might be tempted to analyze policy or program changes that are being rolled out and use them as a perfect opportunity to share how you think things could be done differently—or better.
Done well, this can certainly showcase your innovative perspective, concern for the organization, and out-of-the-box thinking. But many times, it’s done the wrong way—and it can quickly spotlight you as someone who’s not doing much to help move the ball forward—except complaining.
And negative thinking is a big career limiter (especially when it’s done out loud). As Cynthia Shapiro, author of Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You to Know—And What to Do About Them, puts it: "Negative people are always at the top of the layoff lists.” Always.
When big changes are made in your job or company, try to understand why things are happening the way they are before bringing your critiques to the table. Companies make decisions for sound reasons, but they’re not always communicated clearly. So, if there’s something you don’t agree with, ask your manager for clarification. If you still have concerns, bring them up, but make sure you frame them in a positive light (think “Did we consider other options that might reduce the impact on the team?” not “That approach will never work”).
Then, lead by example. When others around you grouse, complain, or object, help them understand the “why” and share what you’re doing to adapt—then encourage them to do the same.
These three big mistakes aren’t hard to overcome. But I find most people don’t realize the missteps they are taking. Keep your job and your reputation on the right track by knowing how to avert these three career bloopers.