Years ago, I built an 18-year corporate career in publishing and marketing that appeared “successful” on the outside, but on the inside, it was anything but. I rose to the level of Vice President and managed multimillion-dollar budgets and global initiatives, but throughout my career, I faced a number of excruciating experiences, including sexual harassment, gender discrimination, work-life integration failure, narcissistic bosses, toxic colleagues, working towards outcomes I didn’t believe in, and more. I also experienced something doctors called “chronic tracheitis” on and off for four years – a serious, painful infection of the trachea that left me debilitated and exhausted. In the end, I couldn’t shake the continual nagging feeling that I was meant for a very different life and work, and I finally did something about it. (Here’s more on that story).
While I did some important things right, my professional missteps were rather large (at least in my own mind). When I look back on my 40 years of working, and in examining the career trajectories of hundreds of professionals I’ve coached and trained, five blunders stand out from all the rest as the most negative and damaging in our careers and professional lives.
The 5 things you should never do at work are (or avoid to the greatest degree possible):
1. Speak, behave or quit out of rage or revenge
Recent research has shown that the U.S. is the most overworked developed nation in the world, and many if not most professionals spend more hours engaged in work than in anything else. So it’s normal and expected that we will experience the full gamut of emotions while doing our work, especially if we’re exhausted and drained doing it. I’m all for bringing our whole selves to work, and being as authentic, honest, and transparent as humanly possible (when it’s safe to do that) at our jobs. That said, I’ve watched what happens when we lose control of our emotions and act out rashly and impulsively from rage, revenge or despair.
For example, in my early 20’s, I literally screamed an obscenity at the top of my lungs to my boss whom I felt was harassing me, and I did it in front of the entire office. He had no choice but to contemplate firing me. Thankfully, I had another job offer in the wings so the damage was not too serious. While it felt fantastic (for one split second) to swear at him, what has stayed with me over time is the shock and shame of how out of control I felt during that moment and time. I vowed never to lose it like that and act out of rage or fury again. If you act impulsively and rashly at work, you will likely lose more than your self-respect when you do.
2. Backstab your colleagues
I’m intrigued at how many people today feel completely comfortable ridiculing, disparaging or undermining their bosses, co-workers and even their “friends.” I know what it’s like to be that kind of person – talking behind someone’s back if I felt they were behaving meanly or unprofessionally. And in coaching conversations with executives now, it often emerges that there are difficulties in their work relationships that lead them to say some rather terrible things behind their colleagues’ backs.
But I learned later (in my training as a marriage and family therapist) that this behavior is called triangulation – telling a third party about something that makes you anxious or upset instead of dealing with it head-on with the individual in question.
Why do we do that? Because it alleviates (momentarily) the anxiety we feel, but keeps us from actually DOING anything concrete about what we’re upset about. Often we do this because we lack the courage and fortitude to address the problem directly, or we feel it just won’t work out if we do. It relieves our anxiety to share the problem with someone else, but does nothing to resolve it.
Some folks may call this “gossip” and think that gossip is benign. But gossip can do great damage, particularly when you are in a more senior position than the individual you’re gossiping about. It’s a behavior to avoid in the workplace. Backstabbing and speaking ill of your colleagues is a special brand of negative behavior because it aims to hurt and do harm. And when you desire to hurt others, eventually it will be you who suffers.
One recent client of mine was embarrassed to admit that he had backstabbed a colleague because it seemed that colleague received all sorts of unfair perks, raises, and other benefits because he was in the “in” club – popular, handsome, and “cool” – but didn’t do his job well, handle his fair share, or care about the quality of his work. All of that might have been true, but trying to take this person down behind his back didn’t work. It backfired. That behavior never will succeed in the long run. You’ll only embarrass and humiliate yourself and it will come back around to bite you in the end.
3. Lie and misrepresent the truth
Many people tell lies, and most of us have engaged in some form of lying (through “small white lies” or bigger ones) more than we care to admit. People often do it when they think that the truth will hurt them somehow, or when they want to avoid facing the consequences of their truth.
The problem with lying is two-fold:
By lying, you’re unconsciously telling yourself that you are weak
When you tell yourself you’re not capable of facing reality or dealing with the consequences of the truth, you make yourself right – you’ll grow less powerful, capable, brave, respectable, and trustworthy over time. And the lie will grow stronger.
You have to keep up the lies, forever
The lies you tell must be perpetuated or you’ll be found out, which becomes an exhausting process, draining you of vital energy you need to reach your fullest potential.
If you have told lies at work – about your age, skills and talents, experience and background, about the status of work you’re overseeing, or about who you are and what you are capable of, I’d highly recommend taking a long, hard look at the “why” behind that lie or what I call a “dirty little secret.” Bring to light what you’re truly afraid of. And instead of keeping up with the lie, reach out for some outside help to get in the cage with those fears behind the lie and begin working through them in a more courageous, conscious way.
Lying is one aspect of what my research has found are the 7 most damaging power gaps that negatively impact 98% of professional women and 90% of men today. Power Gap #7 is Allowing the Past To Continue To Define You (and 62% of professionals I’ve studied have shared they are experiencing this gap). This includes the feeling that we need to keep our dirty little secrets private or we’ll be “found out” that we’re less worthy, capable, desirable or respectable than we want to be. But keeping these types of secrets can truly hold us back from reaching our most important goals and building our best careers.
Here’s more about that Power Gap:
4. Proclaim that you’re miserable
Recently, I was talking to a former client who had marched into her boss’s office that week and shared that she was miserable at work and volunteered for a severance package. I’ve done that myself – been so unhappy at work that I put my hand up for a package. I didn’t get it, and neither did my client.
After sharing that news and not receiving the package, you’re stuck in a deeply unsettling situation of the employer knowing you’re very unhappy and probably now it’s clearer that you’re not a good fit for your role (either because of your feelings or your skill set). There are a few specific instances where this might be the right move, but in general, sharing that you hate your job and you’re absolutely miserable — without a concrete plan of action — is not the way to go.
But what if it’s the truth? My father used to say that there are 10 different ways to say anything, and I think he’s right. Phrases like “miserable,” “disgusted,” “fed up,” “ready to walk,” and “need to get out of here” are not helpful when you’re talking to your colleagues, bosses, or HR staff.
What is the better way? Talk about what you’re great at and love to do, what you’ve accomplished, and what you’re ready for more of. Share your work highlights and new directions you’re excited about and committed to take in your career, and discuss your desires for growth. Open the door for new opportunities at your current employer that will expand your skills, your resume and your talents. Try to find ways at your current job (where you’re already getting paid and hopefully treated well) to grow, stretch and build yourself, now.
Explore every option available to you for becoming what you want to without walking out in anger and disgust. And of course, while you’re doing that, actively look for work outside the company — interview, network, apply for other roles. That will give you much more information and knowledge about where you stand competitively in the market.
Back at your current company, your employer or manager might very well be able to sponsor and support your growth and change, if you ask in the right way. I’ve seen this happen countless times with professionals I’ve worked with. But that won’t likely happen if you stomp in and say “I’m miserable and it’s your fault.”
5. Burn bridges
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in business is that success is all about the quality of relationships you’ve formed, and the people in your corner who are ready and excited to be of help and support. Experiencing greater success, reward, and impact in your work is truly dependent on who you know, how they feel and think about you (and how you make them feel), and the ways you support each other. In the end, it’s your network and authentic support community that will be most instrumental in your reaching your most exciting career and leadership goals.
I’m not saying that your great talents and skills aren’t important. They absolutely are. However, we don’t thrive and succeed alone and in a vacuum. We need other people. And these people are not just our former bosses – they are people who reported to you, teamed with you, shared coffee and drinks with you, took training sessions with you, got yelled at alongside of you, and weathered tough times with you.
Every single one of your relationships is vitally important to you and your future, so craft them with care. Avoid people you don’t like or trust, but don’t burn bridges. After decades in the business world, I’ve seen that there are scores (even hundreds) of people we interact with each year who eventually could become our strongest allies, advocates and fans, if we protect and nurture our relationships as the life-affirming asset they are.
Take the time now to build your support relationships and network, both inside your organization and field, and outside of it.
What is the worst mistake you’ve made in your career, and how did you recover from it? Please share your story below.
To build a more successful, fulfilling career, join me in my Amazing Career Project 16-week career growth course this Fall. And to build your confidence, managerial strength and impact, take my Most Powerful You video training course today and bring it to your workforce.
For hands-on career and leadership growth help, visit Kathy’s Coaching Services, and read her latest book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. Download Chapter 1 for FREE here.