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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Are You Your Career's Worst Enemy? (Hint: Maybe)

People tend to be quite talented at explaining away, ignoring, or, frankly, being completely oblivious of their shortcomings. Sigmund Freud and his daughter, Anna, identified a whole list of ways humans do this, which they called defense mechanisms. You may be familiar with some of these mechanisms, such as denial (e.g., “I certainly do not have an attitude problem!”) or rationalization (e.g., “I’m not unorganized; I was late to the meeting because my co-worker didn’t tell me what time it was!”).

In fact, you may use some of these excuses yourself. But what you don’t realize is how these defense mechanisms could be harming your career by holding you back from promotions, successful relationships, and skill building.

With so many ways to avoid facing or make excuses for your flaws, how do you know when you are your own worst enemy? Look for the following red flags.

1. You Struggle to Maintain Professional Relationships

We all have people we don’t exactly click with. We tolerate them, limit our interaction with them, and go on about our business. That’s simply part of the fabric of life. But if you find yourself alienated from a growing string of colleagues and supervisors, well, that’s a problem.

If you pay attention to people who have tenure and status with your organization, you’ll see they have healthy relationships with other people in the company. They may not always agree with their colleagues. They may even argue and get angry, but they don’t stay that way. They don’t make rash decisions in anger or throw away years-long relationships over a disagreement. They work through it and move forward.

2. You Feel Angry More Often Than Not

I once interviewed a gentleman who was angry with his current employer, previous employer, another company to which he applied, and the universe in general. His resentment was practically palpable. Guess what? That’s not the energy that any employer wants on his or her team.

You can probably all think of someone you’ve worked with who criticizes every single thing about his or her job. Or maybe, you have a tendency to do that. Maybe you’re constantly irritated by the things your boss asks you to do or your co-workers’ input during meetings. Everyone has bad days every so often, but the warning sign comes when you have a bad day every day.

People who advance in their careers don’t wallow in anger. They focus on their ultimate goals—like advancing up the career ladder—using their anger as a catalyst to accomplish something or make a change. Then they get back to being curious, energized, happy, creative, thoughtful, and productive.

3. You’ve Officially—and Repeatedly—Been in Trouble

Getting in trouble once doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem. But being in trouble repeatedly—like receiving verbal warnings or write-ups or getting fired—is a fairly reliable indication that you’re ignoring significant issues in your career and therefore aren’t advancing as you should.

People who get ahead aren’t immune from running into some trouble, but each time they experience an issue, they learn from it so the problem doesn’t repeat itself.

4. You Find Yourself Making a Lot of Excuses

You may recognize those defense mechanisms I mentioned earlier. For example, you may rationalize things away. You may blame everyone and everything around you—this person’s lack of experience, that person’s failure to follow through, another person’s attitude, or even the bad weather—for your shortcomings.

But really, what’s the likelihood that it’s always someone else’s fault that you don’t follow through, finish on time, stick to a budget, meet your deadline, or otherwise meet your responsibilities?

When things go awry—as they often will—people who are successful in their careers are solution-focused, rather than problem-focused. They examine what went wrong and figure out how to improve the next time. They see challenges as opportunities, and they dive in with enthusiasm to tackle them.

What to Do Next

Maybe you recognize yourself in one or more of these descriptions. Now what? The answer is both simple and complex: Ask for help. Successful people don’t gain success alone. They know they are as imperfect as the next person. They work on improving. When they need help, they ask for it. Consider the following suggestions:

Seek Feedback

Ask your supervisor and colleagues what they see as your greatest strengths and weaknesses. Ask how you can improve. Some of these conversations may be uncomfortable, and you may get feedback that is difficult to hear, but that discomfort can lead to growth. If you don’t realize, for example, that you frequently interrupt people when you disagree with them, then you’ll probably continue to be argumentative and disruptive.

Find a Mentor

A mentor who is advanced in his or her career can offer guidance on how you can advance. A good mentor will help you build your strengths and manage your weaknesses. He or she will challenge you to stretch your potential and achieve more than you thought possible.

Seek Counseling From a Licensed Provider

Counseling is an often-overlooked resource that can help you identify areas for improvement and, ultimately, thrive. Where else can you get an hour of individual attention from an objective perspective, all geared toward helping you be the best version of yourself? Whether your reason for seeking counseling is something large that’s been weighing you down or something as straightforward as learning to communicate, counseling can help you make progress toward your goals.

Once you reach out for help, don’t stop there. Take the next step and use that help. Will it be hard? Probably. If changing was easy, we would all be perfect. But you and your career success are worth this investment—so do the work and get ready to enjoy the payoff!

Photo of people fighting courtesy of Shutterstock.