An acquaintance of mine recently told me about a frustrating—though ultimately fruitful—job experience. When her boss went on maternity leave, she assumed the majority of her workload in the interim, and handled all the new tasks with skill and ease. After six months, it became clear that her boss wasn’t planning to return to work. But the company didn’t hire a replacement; instead, my friend continued doing her old boss’s role—without being offered a promotion or raise.
Ultimately, she made an appointment to meet with her supervisor (her former boss’ boss) and passionately argued her case for being fairly compensated. Her manager agreed and followed through with a salary boost and a bigger title. Why the delay? My friend had been doing such a bang-up job that her boss never had to jump in to help—and therefore had never given a second thought to the amount she was powering through. “We’d like to think that talent and hard work is all that counts, but it’s not,” says Steve Arneson, PhD, author of What Your Boss Really Wants From You.
Here are nine ways you may be inadvertently sabotaging your career success.
1. You Always Agree With Your Boss
Nothing’s wrong with taking your higher-up’s side, per se, but thinking outside of the box, rather than blindly following orders, is the best way to get noticed. “If you think there’s a better way to do something, challenge the status quo,” urges Jodi Glickman, author of Great on the Job and founder of the communication training firm Great on the Job. “You’ll be rewarded for pushing back in a way that shows you’re thoughtful and intelligent.” For example, if you notice a company process is overly time-consuming or cost-ineffective, come up with a new system or plan that saves time, money, or both, and present it to your boss.
2. You’re Irreplaceable
Quick pop quiz: What happens at the office when you go on vacation? A) Other people pitch in to keep your projects going while you’re out. B) Your work just sits there until you get back. If you answered B, then you are most likely irreplaceable and you are digging yourself into a hole, career-wise. “It’s counterintuitive, but the best way to be promotable is to be able to walk out the door,” says Donald Asher, author of Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn’t, and Why.
Think about it: If you’re the only one capable of getting your job done, then your boss is never going to move you up because she’d be in a major bind without you. So, it’s time to start proving that you’re not irreplaceable. Begin by transferring your knowledge to someone else. Explain to your boss that it might be problematic for the organization that nothing gets done when you’re out of the office, so you’d like to cross-train a co-worker.
Show your deputy the ropes and then write down everything that you do so that your knowledge is documented and systemized, proving that anyone could take over. Now, when that promotion opens up, you’ll have all your bases covered, putting you in prime position to move up.
3. You Always Say Yes to New Assignments
If you’re a junior employee and your boss asks you to take on yet another project when your plate is already full, don’t feel obligated to pile it onto the load. “If you overextend yourself, you are setting yourself up for failure,” says Glickman. “The goal isn’t to say yes all the time, but to consistently exceed expectations.” When you have too much in the pipeline, you’ll end up missing deadlines or doing a sub-par job—which is definitely not the way to get promoted. Instead, aim for a workload that allows you to perform above and beyond.
So, how do you keep your tasks manageable, while still staying in your supervisor’s favor? When she directs a new assignment your way, tell her that you’d love to dive into it, but in order to excel, you’ll need assistance with another big project you’ve got going on. That way, you’re not turning down work, but are still looping her into your to-do list while keeping the focus positive.
4. You Don’t Delegate and Can’t Scale
Once you’ve reached a senior level in the company, however, you should take a different approach to juggling a hefty number of responsibilities. The higher you move up the ladder, the more you’ll have to get done—but the more power you’ll also have to delegate projects. So it’s key to master a skill Asher refers to as “scalability.” “People’s response to a greater workload is often to put in twice as much time and effort, and that’s a mistake,” he says. “There is only so much you can pay attention to, so you need to figure out how to ‘scale’ each job.” The ability to understand how to prioritize and delegate is highly valued in an organization. Besides, collaborating with others on a project instead of taking on the whole thing yourself is an important way to build relationships and make sure the whole team is aware of your skills.
5. Your Timing is Off
Asher studied fast-track professionals (those who’ve received a promotion every 12-18 months), and found one surprising reason why they get ahead so quickly: “They pay a lot of attention to timing, and artificially prepare themselves to be ready to take on a new position,” says Asher. “Since promotions create a cascade of staffing adjustments, there is a structural bias toward hiring from the outside.” So you need to convince your boss that elevating you won’t disrupt workflow.
For example, if your company is opening a second branch in the fall, tell your boss that your assignments will be drawing to a close in August, so you’d be ready to make a transition and would like to put your hat in the ring to be the new district manager.
6. You’re Doing Your Job Too Well and No One Knows About It
If you’re a highly productive employee (and, of course, you are), you are a boss’ dream come true. She never has to do damage control with your projects, correct mistakes, or follow up on late assignments. But the flip side of not checking on your work is that she also may not realize all that you’re accomplishing—which means you could be overlooked for a raise or promotion. “If no one knows about your achievements, you are never going to get ahead,” says Glickman. “It’s important to share your wins in a respectful way.”
So, how do you toot your own horn without seeming like a show off? “The Trojan horse for getting across positive info about yourself is to praise other people on your team,” says Asher. “You’ll be sneaking in details about your role, and your name is attached to that success.” Emphasize the collaborative aspect by saying something like, “I was excited to be part of the committee to work on the branding focus group. We’ve seen a leap in sales since implementing our findings.” Just make sure to call out your own role in the win, as in “The development team did a fantastic job on the new interface, and I am proud to say that I caught several user problems the engineers didn’t anticipate. Working together, we were able to resolve them rapidly.”
And whenever you get positive feedback about a project, forward it to your boss, adds Glickman. Preface the email with a line like, “Audi was thrilled with our campaign. Wanted to share this with you.”
7. You’re Not Aggressive About Speaking Up During Meetings
Not speaking up can hurt your career more than saying the wrong thing can. “Some people think that if they keep their head down, work hard, and don’t make waves, they’ll be rewarded,” says Glickman. “But in order to get promoted, you have to take risks and contribute vocally in meetings—you are expected to have an opinion, to contribute, and to add value.”
To interject gracefully, frame your counterpoint as a question (“Is there a reason why we are only looking at option A, not option B?”) or qualify it—as in, “Maybe you’ve already considered XYZ, but I just want to raise the issue,” or “I might be totally off base, but let me play the devil’s advocate for a moment.” Phrasing it this way sends the message that you are trying to push the envelope—without being pushy.
8. You Work Through Happy Hour
Are you chained to your desk while everyone else in the office hits up Tequila Mockingbird for margaritas-and-karaoke night? Do you have your nose to the grindstone during lunch when your cubemates head out for salads in the park? Hanging out with colleagues isn’t just a welcome break from the daily demands of the job, it’s a crucial career move. “The more people who know and love you, the better your chances of being approached for new opportunities and stretch assignments, and of being well compensated,” says Glickman. “Work is a team sport in today’s economy, and you need to have people championing your cause.”
You don’t necessarily have to be the office social butterfly, but do make quotidian interactions friendlier by asking co-workers about their personal lives before and after meetings, and grabbing coffee or lunch with people at least a couple of times a week. “Be sure to build relationships not only with your team, but with other divisions, too,” Glickman points out. Social events are when key career-boosting connections are made, and you don’t want to miss out.
9. You Don’t Ask for It
Your supervisor also has to know that you’re hungry to get ahead. Sit down with her and explain when you feel like you’ve mastered your current projects. Do not wait for your annual review to bring this up, because everyone will do it then—you want to make your play as soon as you can demonstrate that you have command of your current role.
Ask her what you need to do in order for her to think of you first when it comes to landing a stretch assignment or promotion, and then follow her advice, says Asher. “According to my research, men will ask for a promotion if they have just 60% of the required skills, whereas women will only pursue it if they have 100% of the required skills.” Don’t wait. Remember, if you don’t ask for it, chances are you won’t get it.
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