When many of us were younger, we might have discovered that avoiding conflict was the best way to deal with our parents. We might have found that perfectionism scored high marks in school. These learned behaviors might have served us well at the time. But now, those same habits skew our vision and inhibit individual progress. 

We didn’t rock the boat with our parents, so we don’t rock the boat now, even when it makes sense. We aimed for perfection then, so now we hold tight to being flawless. 
Never mind that it causes us to avoid making suggestions in the workplace for fear that our ideas will fail.

We all have derailers, those sneaky, unconscious, maladaptive habits learned early in life.

Ultimately, our derailers cause us to act in ways that push away those who might be huge supporters or helpers. Consider the executive who constantly shifts blame or acts like a victim. Her insecurities lead her to look outside for the cause of everything that happens rather than seek answers inward or from colleagues. She’s no less of a success saboteur than the micromanager down the hall who puts little trust in his people and elicits negative feelings.

Don’t forget about those team members who thirst for power. They discount everyone else’s goals in favor of their own, building walls of distrust and hurt feelings wherever they go. Ironically, research suggests that the power hungry suffer from a low moral identity. They derive self-worth from knocking others down or taking advantage of people. Certainly, power dynamics are on display at every workplace, making this type of derailer an easy one to spot.

Popping Up at the Worst Times

Regardless of how they manifest themselves, derailers aren’t just bad for business. They also sabotage our paths to success and blur our world perspective. As Dr. Marshall Goldsmith discussed in “Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts — Becoming the Person You Want to Be,” up to 85% of high-ranking professionals he surveyed thought they were among the elite 20% of their peers. A full 70% ranked themselves as part of the top 10%. Statistically, they can’t all be correct. Yet they all held tight to their beliefs.

Of course, derailers aren’t always easy to spot. Typically, they don’t show up until moments of high stress or uncertainty, such as in the midst of work projects, when team dynamics are tense, when goals are unclear, or when a situation seems risky. The military has coined a name for this type of environment: VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Derailers pop up at these points because emotions run so high. The limbic center of the brain, that place that controls feelings, views VUCA-related experiences as threats. The result? The mind goes into flight or flight and engages these sabotaging behaviors.

Getting Your Power Back

I have a fear of failure. I have had to become acutely aware of that fact because, ironically, the fear of failure has at times held me back. It nearly derailed me from growing my own business.

Delegation was scary for me. I felt a need to control every part of the outcome. I nearly burned myself out with the thought that I could do everything better and faster. By not letting others invest their time and effort, I was left feeling somewhat alone.

Doing it all myself came at a heavy price. It wasn’t easy to admit, and it wasn’t easy to change, but over time, I’ve gotten better at examining the impact of my need to control. Revealing my own derailer has decreased its power over me.

Removing the Sting of a Derailer

The trick to becoming adept at slowly reducing the power of derailers is to prepare to identify and subdue them, starting with a few changes:

1. Create new life scripts.

By the time you kick into derailer mode, you’re probably not thinking too clearly. Before you get to those VUCA points, map out plans to follow based on your triggers. I’ve memorized short scripts to say during tense moments. The words help me avoid saying something I’ll later regret. They also buy me time.

How does this work in the real world? Let’s pretend you get angry when sales numbers go south. Instead of heading straight into fight mode, lean on your script: “Thank you for letting me know those figures. I want to give this some more thought before I make any decisions.” At that point, you can disengage from your derailers and circle back to the issue with a clear head.

2. Seek and accept feedback.

Understanding your derailers can be tough, even if you are self-actualized. And even if you pinpoint your derailers, you might not know your triggers. Guess who does know? Your friends, co-workers, and supervisors. Of course, they aren’t going to offer up information on their own. You’ll have to ask for feedback and accept it as a gift, even if it’s hard to hear.

Want another reason to request insights? A Journal of Organizational Behavior study discovered that CEOs who routinely asked their people for feedback improved the confidence of other leaders in their organizations. They made transparency a natural part of the workplace culture, leading others to recognize, acknowledge, and work on their own derailers.

3. Hold yourself publicly accountable.

Never keep your derailer improvement goals to yourself. Make them known to your teammates. Your objectives should be realistic while striving for excellence. Tie each one to deadlines to avoid the temptation to put them on the back burner. As co-workers watch you make strides, they’ll value your integrity and perhaps echo it themselves.

One caveat: Don’t sandbag your goals by making them so conservative that you blow them out of the water. Instead, ensure your goals are backed by the principles of FAST: frequent communication, ambitious in nature, specific metrics, and transparency. You’ll be in good standing, as heralded companies including Google, Kraft Heinz, and Netflix approach their goal-setting from a FAST perspective.

We all have impulses that might have benefitted us in the past. If left unchecked, however, they will lead us astray over time. Once we learn to recognize our derailers and free ourselves from them, we can regain control.