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Which Workplace Habits Do You Need to Break to Become More Successful?
By Marshall Goldsmith

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© 2008 Nightingale-Conant Corporation

Don’t think you have any? Read on! Renowned leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith shares his insights on how successful people can achieve even greater accomplishments.

Higher levels of achievement are attained not only by learning and honing new behaviors or skills, but also by putting a stop to one or more of 21 annoying workplace habits! With successful people likely to focus on their successes rather than failures, there are four key beliefs regarding success that actually prevent us from changing our ways and achieving even greater success, as described here:

  • Belief 1: I Have Succeeded — Successful people believe in their skills and talent.

  • Belief 2: I Can Succeed — Successful people believe they have the capability within themselves to make desirable things happen. People who believe they can succeed see opportunities where others see threats. They’re not afraid of uncertainty or ambiguity. They embrace it. They want to take greater risks and achieve greater returns. Given the choice, they will always bet on themselves.

  • Belief 3: I Will Succeed — Successful people have an unflappable optimism. They not only believe that they can manufacture success, they believe it’s practically their due.

  • Believe 4: I Choose to Succeed — Successful people believe that they are doing what they choose to do because they choose to do it. They have a high need for self-determination. The more successful a person is, the more likely this is to be true.

These four success beliefs—that we have the skills, confidence, motivation, and free choice to succeed—make us superstitious. Psychologically speaking, superstitious behavior comes from the mistaken belief that a specific activity that is followed by positive reinforcement is actually the cause of that positive reinforcement. The activity may be functional or not—that is, it may affect someone or something else, or it may be self-contained and pointless—but if something good happens after we do it, then we make a connection and seek to repeat the activity. Superstition is merely the confusion of correlation and causality. Any human, like any animal, tends to repeat behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement. The more we achieve, the more reinforcement we get.

One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption “I behave this way, and I achieve results. Therefore, I must be achieving results because I behave this way.” This belief is sometimes true but not across the board. That’s where superstition kicks in. I’m talking about the difference between success that happens because of our behavior  and the success that comes in spite of our behavior. Almost everyone I meet is successful because of doing a lot of things right, and almost everyone I meet is successful in spite of some behavior that defies common sense.

Identifying Your Most
Annoying Interpersonal Issues

What we are dealing with here are challenges in interpersonal behavior, often leadership behavior. They are the egregious everyday annoyances that make your workplace substantially more noxious than it needs to be. They don’t happen in a vacuum. They are transactional flaws performed by one person who is relating to other people. These 21 habits, 13 of which are described briefly below, stand in the way of great leaders reaching higher levels of accomplishment:

Winning too much:
The need to win at all costs and in all situations—when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally beside the point.


Winning too much is easily the most common behavioral problem that I observe in successful people. There’s a fine line between being competitive and over-competitive, between winning when it counts and when no one’s counting—and successful people cross that line with alarming frequency. Winning too much is the number one challenge because it underlies nearly every other behavioral problem.

Adding too much value:
The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.

It’s common among leaders used to running the show. It is extremely difficult for successful people to listen to other people tell them something that they already know without communicating somehow that “we already knew that” and “we know a better way.”

Passing judgment:
The need to rate others and impose our standards on them.

There’s nothing wrong with offering an opinion in the normal give and take of business discussions. We want people to agree or disagree freely, but it’s not appropriate to pass judgment when we specifically ask people to voice their opinions about us.

Making destructive comments:
The needless sarcasm and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty.

They are different from comments that add too much value—because they add nothing but pain. We don’t think we make destructive comments, but the people who know us disagree.

Starting with “no,” “but,” and “however”:
The overuse of these negative qualifiers, which secretly say to everyone, “I’m right. You’re wrong.”

When we start a sentence with “no,” “but,” “however,” or any variation, no matter how friendly our tone or how many cute mollifying phrases we throw in to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, the message to the other person is, “You are wrong.” The general response from the other person is to dispute our position and fight back. From there, the conversation dissolves into a pointless war. We’re no longer communicating. We’re both trying to win.

Telling the world how smart we are:
The need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.

This is another variation on our need to win. We need to win people’s admiration. We need to let them know that we are at least their intellectual equal if not their superior. We need to be the smartest person in the room. It usually backfires.

Speaking when angry:
Using emotional volatility as a management tool.

Emotional volatility is not the most reliable leadership tool. When we get angry, we are usually out of control. It’s hard to lead people when we’ve lost control. The worst thing about anger is how it stifles our ability to change. Once we get a reputation for emotional volatility, we are branded for life.

Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work”:
The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren’t asked.

This is unique because it is pure unadulterated negativity under the guise of being helpful. We employ it to establish that our expertise or authority is superior to someone else’s. It doesn’t mean that what we say is correct or useful. It’s simply a way of inserting ourselves into a situation as chief arbiter or senior critic.

Withholding information:
The refusal to share information to maintain an advantage over others.

Intentionally withholding information is the opposite of adding value. We are deleting value. Yet is has the same purpose: to gain power. The problem with not sharing information—for whatever reason—is that it rarely achieves the desired effect. We may think we’re gaining an edge and consolidating power, but we’re actually breeding mistrust.

Failing to give proper recognition:
The inability to praise and reward.

This is a sibling of withholding information. In withholding our recognition of another person’s contribution to a team’s success, we are not only sowing injustice and treating people unfairly, but we also are depriving people of the emotional payoff that comes with success.

Claiming credit that we don’t deserve:
The most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success.

Claiming credit is adding insult to the injury that comes with overlooked recognition. We’re not only depriving people of the credit they deserve, but we are hogging it for ourselves. It’s two crimes in one. This is another sibling of the need to win.

Making excuses:
The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.

If we can stop excusing ourselves, we can get better at almost anything we choose.

Clinging to the past:
The need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.

Many people enjoy living in the past, especially if going back there lets them blame someone else for anything that’s gone wrong in their lives. That’s when clinging to the past becomes an interpersonal problem. We use the past as a weapon against others.

Admittedly, this is a scary pantheon of challenges, and when they’re collected in one place, they sound like a chamber of horrors. Who would want to work in an environment where co-workers are guilty of these sins? Yet we do every day. We are all guilty of most of these “sins” some of the time. You may know one person who is chronically guilty of one or two of them, while another person has different issues. Hopefully, you don’t work with anyone who frequently exhibits all of these failings! Focusing on one or two key areas for change simplifies the task of helping ourselves—or helping others—get better.

There’s more good news. It is eminently possible to remove these roadblocks. The potential to fix them is in the skill set of every human being. For example, the cure for not thanking enough is remembering to say thank you. How tough is that? For not listening, it’s keeping your mouth shut and ears open. For not apologizing, it’s learning to say, “I’m sorry. I’ll do better in the future.” For punishing the messenger, it’s imagining how we’d like to be treated under similar circumstances. And so on.

This stuff is simple. It’s definitely not easy, but it is definitely doable! You already know what to do. It’s as basic as tying your shoelaces or riding a bike, or any other skill that lasts a lifetime. We just lose sight of the many daily opportunities to employ them and thus we get rusty. Check yourself against the list. While it is eminently possible that you may have been guilty of all of them at least once, it’s unlikely that you’re facing all of these roadblocks as daily activities. It’s not even likely that you can claim six to eight of them as common occurrences. Even if you could, of those six to eight, it’s also unlikely that all of them are sufficiently significant concerns that you have to worry about. Some are going to be more serious issues than others. For example, if only one out of 20 people says that you have an anger management issue, let it go. On the other hand, if 16 out of 20 say it, let’s get to work. Whittle down the list to the vital issues, and you’ll know where to get started.

By the way, I mentioned earlier that there are 21 bad workplace habits that hold even the highest of achievers back, if you want to find out habits 14-21, check out my latest Nightingale-Conant release Take It to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

Life is good!

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"Successful people are simply those with successful habits."
— Brian Tracy
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