Peter Drucker once said, “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”
If you take corrective action on the following negative work habits, you’ll become more successful.
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 the number one problem because it underlies nearly all other behavioral problems.
If we argue too much, it’s because we want our view to prevail over everyone else’s. We want to win.
If we’re guilty of putting down others, it’s our way of positioning them beneath us. We want to win.
If we ignore people, we make them fade away. Again, it’s about winning.
If we withhold information, it’s to give ourselves an edge over others. We want to win.
If we play favorites, it’s to give ourselves an advantage. We want to win allies.
Much of what we do to annoy people stems from needlessly trying to be the alpha male or female. But winning too much can limit our future success.
If we acknowledge this flaw and work to suppress it in our interpersonal relations, we’ll become more successful.
Adding Too Much Value
The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
This is what adding too much value looks like:
Let’s say you’re the CEO, and I come to you with an idea that you think is good. Rather than just saying, “Great idea!” your tendency is to say, “Good idea, but it would work better if you tried it this way.”
Here’s the problem with your response:
Although you may have improved my idea by 10 percent, you’ve reduced my commitment to executing it by 60 percent. Why? Because you’ve taken ownership of the idea. What was my idea is now your idea, and I walk out of your office less excited about it than when I walked in.
That’s the paradox of added value. What you gain in the form of a better idea is lost in your employees’ decreased commitment to the concept.
To solve this problem of saying “Great idea,” and then dropping the other shoe with a tempering “but” or “however,” just cut your response off after “idea.”
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 decisions. But it’s not appropriate to pass judgement when we specifically ask people for their opinions about us.
This is true even if you ask a question and agree with the answer. For instance, let’s say you’re a CEO in a meeting asking for suggestions about a problem.
You tell one employee, “That’s a great idea.” Then you tell another employee, “That’s a good idea.” And you say nothing to a third employee’s suggestion. How will each person respond?
The first employee is probably encouraged to have the CEO’s approval. The second is slightly less pleased. The third employee is not encouraged at all.
No matter how well-intentioned the CEO’s comments are, grading people’s answers – rather than just accepting them without comment – makes people hesitant and defensive.
So how do you stop passing judgement? No matter what you think of a suggestion, treat it with neutrality. Just say, “Thanks. You’ve given me something to think about.”
Making Destructive Comments
The needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty.
Destructive comments are the cutting remarks we spew out daily, with or without intention, that serve no other purpose than to put people down or assert ourselves as their superiors.
They run the gamut from a thoughtless jab in a meeting (“That wasn’t very bright”) to gratuitous comments about how someone looks (“Nice tie” – with a smirk) to critiques of people’s past performance which everyone but you has forgotten. (“Do you remember the time you . . .”)
We may make destructive comments without thinking, but the objects of our scorn remember – every single one of them.
So how do you stop making destructive comments? Before speaking, ask yourself:
- Will this comment help our customers?
- Will this comment help our company?
- Will this comment help the person I’m talking to?
- Will this comment help the person I’m talking about?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, don’t say it.
Starting with”No,” “But,” or “However”
The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly say to everyone, “I’m right. You’re wrong.”
When you start a sentence with “no,” “but,” “however,” or any variation thereof, no matter how friendly your tone, the message to the other person is, “You are wrong!”
Nothing productive can happen after that. The other person will dispute your position and fight back, and the conversation will turn into a pointless war. You’re no longer communicating. You’re both trying to win.
For instance, “You make some very interesting points, but . . .” Or “But John, I don’t do that!” Or “That’s true, however . . .”
By self-monitoring your remarks, you can begin to change your ways.
Telling the World How Smart We Are
The need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.
We need to win people’s admiration. We need to be the smartest person in the room.
Phrases that demonstrate this include the gentle, “I think someone told me that,” to the simple, “I already knew that,” to the sarcastic, “I didn’t need to hear that,” to the arrogant, “I’m five steps ahead of you.”
The problem here is that you’re not just boasting about how much you know – you’re insulting the other person. You’re better off hearing the other person out and saying nothing at all.
Being smart turns people on. But announcing how smart you are turns them off.
So how do you tone down your need to tell the world how smart you are? By recognizing your current behavior, you can let the moment pass in the future with a simple “Thank you.”
Speaking When Angry
Using emotional volatility as a management tool.
When you get angry, you’re usually out of control. And it’s hard to lead people when you’ve lost control.
Once you get a reputation for emotional volatility, you could be branded for life. Pretty soon that is all people know about you.
So how do you stop getting angry?
If there are people in your life who drive you crazy, remind yourself that the person may not be able to help being who he is. Getting mad at him makes as much sense as getting mad at our chair for being a chair. If we had his parents and his background, perhaps we would be like him too.
And if you have a reputation for getting angry, just keep your mouth shut. By doing this, no one will know how you really feel.
Negativity, or “Let Me Explain Why That Won’t Work”
The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren’t asked.
“Let me explain why that won’t work.” That’s the telltale phrase of negativity. It’s indicative of our need to share our negative thoughts even when they haven’t been solicited. It’s also unique, because it is purse unadulterated negativity under the guise of being helpful.
We use it (or variations such as “The only problem with that is . . .”) to establish that our expertise is superior to someone else’s. It doesn’t mean that what we say is correct or useful. It’s just a way of inserting ourselves into a situation as a critic.
But no one like’s critics. They’re annoying, and we avoid them.
If negativity is your flaw, monitor your statements the moment someone offers you a helpful suggestion. What we say is a great indicator of what we’re doing to turn people off.
Another revealing clue would be to take a personal inventory of how your colleagues deal with you. How often do they come to you with helpful suggestions – without you having to ask? How often do they knock on your door and sit down to give you a heads-up about a development that may affect you?
Seeing how people relate to you can provide proof that your flaw is serious, that it’s a problem.
The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
Intentionally withholding information is the opposite of adding value. You’re deleting value. Yet it has the same purpose: To gain power.
You see it in people who answer every question with a question; they believe revealing anything puts them at a disadvantage. You see it in people who don’t answer your emails or only give partial answers to your queries.
If you don’t understand why it annoys people, reflect on how you felt when:
- There was an important meeting that you weren’t told about
- There was an important email you weren’t copied on
- You were the last person to learn something
You may think you’re gaining an edge by not sharing information, but you’re actually breeding mistrust. In order to have power, you need to inspire loyalty rather than suspicion.
There are also unintentional ways we withhold information.
We do this when we’re too busy to get back to someone with important information. We do this when we forget to include someone in our discussions. And we do this when we delegate a task to our subordinates but don’t take the time to show them how we want the task done.
A big reason why we withhold information is simply that we’re too busy. We mean well and we have good intentions, but we fail to get around to it.
So how do you stop withholding information? Just start sharing it. Schedule time to debrief your employees. Make it a priority that can’t be postponed or interrupted by a phone call.
Failing to Give Proper Recognition
The inability to praise and reward.
In withholding your recognition of another person’s contribution to a team’s success, you’re depriving people of the emotional payoff that comes with success. They can’t revel in the success or accept congratulations – because you’ve choked off that option. Instead, they feel ignored, and they resent you for it.
In depriving people of recognition, you’re depriving them of closure. And we all need closure in any interpersonal transaction.
Here are four steps to improving in the area of providing recognition.
- Make a list of all the important groups of people in your life (friends, family, direct reports, customers, etc.).
- Write down the name of every important person in each group.
- Twice a week, review the list of names and ask yourself, “Did someone on this page do something that I should recognize?”
- If the answer is “no,” do nothing. Don’t be a phony. But if the answer is “yes,” give them some quick recognition, either by phone, email, or a note.
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’re hogging it for ourselves.
Claiming credit that you don’t deserve is theft – you’re stealing the ideas, performances, and self-esteem of others.
But there’s no telling what a group can achieve when no one cares who gets the credit. We know this because we remember how good we felt about our colleagues when they gave us the credit we deserved.
Here’s a simple way to start sharing credit.
For one day make a note of every time you congratulate yourself on an achievement, large or small. Examples include coming up with a big idea for a client, showing up on time for a meeting, or writing a clever note to a colleague.
Once you’ve created the list, examine each episode and ask yourself, “Is there any way possible that someone else might deserve the credit for “my” achievement?”
If you showed up on time for a meeting across town, was it because your assistant chased you off a phone call and made sure you were out the door to get across town in sufficient time?
If you came up with a good idea in a meeting, was it inspired by an insightful comment from someone else in the room?
We have a strong bias to remember events in a light most favorable to us. This drill exposes that bias and make us consider the possibility that someone else’s perspective is closer to the truth.
The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
Whenever you say things such as, “I’m sorry I’m late but the traffic was horrible,” stop talking at the word “late.” Blaming the traffic is a lame excuse – and it doesn’t excuse the fact that you kept people waiting. You should’ve started earlier.
More subtle excuses appear when we attribute our failings to some inherited DNA that can never be altered. Examples include:
- “I’m impatient”
- “I always put things off to the last minute.”
- “I’m horrible at time management. I’ve been told for years that I waste time on pointless projects and discussions. I guess that’s just the way I am.”
What we’re really doing here is stereotyping ourselves, and using that stereotype to excuse otherwise inexcusable behavior.
The next time you hear yourself saying, “I’m just no good at . . . ,” ask youself, “Why not?”
We excuse our tardiness because we’ve been late all our lives – and our parents and friends let us get away with it. The same thing goes with other annoying habits such as passing judgement or making destructive comments.
But these aren’t genetic flaws! You weren’t born that way. If you stop making excuses and start accepting responsibility, you can get better at almost anything.
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.
There’s a school of thought that says we can understand a lot about our errant behavior by delving into our past, particularly our family dynamics.
If you’re a perfectionist, it’s because your parents never said you were good enough. If you freeze around authority figures, it’s because you had a controlling mother.
This type of “therapy” focuses on understanding the past, but it does nothing to change the future.
Many people enjoy clinging to the past because it lets them blame someone else for something that’s gone wrong in their lives. We use the past as a weapon against others.
We also cling to the past as a way of contrasting it with the present – usually to highlight something positive about ourselves at the expense of someone else.
Have you ever began a long, self-serving story with the phrase, “When I was your age . . .”? Sometimes we blame other people not as an excuse for our failure, but as a subtle way of highlighting our successes.
You brag about how hard you had it, and how smart you are to have triumphed over such great adversity - but you mask that boasting by dumping some frustration on the other person.
Don’t blame others for the choices you made – and that includes the choices that turned out well.
Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.
Most leaders say they would never encourage sucking up in their organizations. But if this is so, why does it dominate the workplace?
Because we send subtle signals that encourage subordinates to mute their criticisms and exaggerate their praise of the powers that be.
If you’re asked whether you love your dog more than your family members, you’ll most likely say no. But for a lot of people , the dog gets more attention than the family.
Perhaps it’s because the dog is always happy to see you. Or the dog never talks back. Or the dog gives you unconditional love. In other words, the dog is a suck-up.
If we aren’t careful, we can treat people at work like our dogs: rewarding those who heap unconditional admiration upon us. When you do this, however, you encourage behavior that serves you, but not necessarily the best interests of the company.
So how do you stop encouraging this behavior?
Rank all your direct reports in the following three categories:
- How much do they like you? Or how much do you think they like you?
- What is their contribution to the company? Are they A players, B, or C?
- How much personal recognition do you give them?
What we’re looking for is whether the correlation is stronger between one and three, or two and three. If we’re honest, our recognition of people may be linked to how much they like us rather than how well they perform. That’s playing favorites.
Refusing to Express Regret
The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.
Expressing regret, or apologizing, is a cleansing ritual. But it’s hard for many of us to do.
Perhaps we think apologizing means we’ve lost a contest (and successful people have a practically irrational need to win at everything). Perhaps we find it humiliating to seek forgiveness (which suggests subservience).
Whatever the reasons, refusing to apologize causes ill will. Just think how bitter you felt when a friend didn’t apologize for hurting you. And how long that bitterness festered.
People who can’t apologize at work may as well be wearing a t-shirt that says, “I don’t care about you.”
The irony, of course, is that all the fears that lead us to resist apologizing – the fear of losing, admitting we’re wrong, ceding control – are actually erased by an apology. When you say, “I’m sorry,” you turn people into your allies.
When you declare your dependence on others, they usually agree to help. And during the course of making you a better person, they inevitably try to become better people themselves.
This is how individuals change, how teams improve, how divisions grow, and how companies become world-beaters.
The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
People will tolerate all sorts of rudeness, but the inability to pay attention holds a special place in their hearts – perhaps because it’s something all of us should be able to do with ease.
When you fail to listen, you could be sending out the following messages:
- I don’t care about you.
- I don’t understand you.
- You’re wrong.
- You’re stupid.
- You’re wasting my time.
The reality for leaders is that in the past, very bright people would put up with this disrespectful behavior. They may not have had a better option for employment.
But nowadays, because they have more options, they’ll leave you!
Failing to Express Gratitude
The most basic form of bad manners.
Two of the sweetest words in the English language are “Thank you.” They’re not only pleasant to the ear, but they help us avoid so many problems. It’s what you say when you have nothing nice to say.
Yet people have a hard time saying it. Whether they’re receiving a helpful suggestion or unwanted advice or a nice compliment, they get confused about how to respond.
They have many options. They can dispute the comment, question it, clarify it, or criticize it. But they’ll do practically everything but the right thing – say “Thank you.”
No matter what someone tells you, remind yourself, “I won’t learn less.” What this means is when somebody makes a suggestion, you’re either going to learn more or learn nothing. But you won’t learn less. Hearing people out won’t make you dumber. So thank them for trying to help.
Punishing the Messenger
The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.
Punishing the messenger manifests itself in big and little ways.
It’s not just the expletive you neglect to delete in a meeting when a subordinate announces that a deal fell apart. If you had calmly asked, “What went wrong?” no harm would be done. The subordinate would explain what happened and everyone in the room would be wiser for it. But that flash of temper evident in your expletive sends a different signal. It says if you want to tick off the boss, surprise him with bad news.
It’s also the snort of disgust you exhale when your assistant says that the boss is too busy to see you. It’s not your assistant’s fault that the boss is avoiding you. But that’s not how your assistant interprets your disgust.
It’s not just bad news, either. It’s all the times that people give us a helpful warning – a red light up ahead when we’re driving, or that our socks don’t match as we head out the door in the morning. We argue with them for trying to help us.
If your goal is to stop this bad habit, all you need to say is, “Thank you.”
Passing the Buck
The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
Passing the buck is blaming others for our mistakes. A leader who can’t shoulder the blame isn’t someone we’ll follow blindly into battle. We question that person’s character and loyalty to us. And so we hold back on our loyalty to him or her.
Passing the buck is the dark flip side of claiming credit that others deserve. Instead of depriving others of their rightful glory for a success, we wrongfully saddle them with the shame of our failure.
What’s strange about passing the buck is that unlike the other flaws, which we’re rarely aware of, we don’t need others to point out that we’re passing the buck. We know we must shoulder the blame for a failure, but we can’t do it. So we find a scapegoat.
Infallibility is a myth. No one expects us to be right all the time. But when we’re wrong, they expect us to own up to it.
Being wrong is an opportunity to show what kind of leader you are. How well you own up to your mistakes makes a bigger impression than how you revel in your successes.
An Excessive Need to Be “Me”
Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.
This is the chronic behavior, both positive and negative, that we think of as our unalterable essence.
If we’re poor at returning calls – whether it’s because we’re over-committed, or we’re just rude – we give ourselves a pass every time we don’t get back to callers. “Hey, that’s me. Deal with it.” To change would be going against the deepest part of our being, making us inauthentic.
If we always express our opinion, no matter how hurtful or noncontributory it may be, we’re exercising our right to be “me.”
Over time, it’s easy for us to cross the line and begin to make a virtue of our flaws – simply because they constitute what we think of as “me.”
But a stern allegiance to your definition of yourself is pointless vanity. If you can shed your excessive need to be “me,” you can stop thinking about yourself and start behaving in a way that benefits others. And the more you consider how others are feeling, the better your reputation will be.
Often the root cause of annoying behavior, goal obsession turns us into someone we shouldn’t be.
Goal obsession is one of those paradoxical traits we accept as a driver of our success. It’s a force that motivates us to finish the job in the face of any obstacle – and finish it perfectly.
It’s a valuable attribute to have much of the time. But taken too far, it can become a blatant cause of failure. We can get so wrapped up in achieving our goal that we do it at the expense of a larger mission.
It comes from misunderstanding what we want in our lives. We think we want more money. But in obsessing about making more money, we might be neglecting our loved ones – for whom we’re presumably securing that money.
In pursuing the corner office, we might trample upon the colleagues whose support we will need later on to stay in that corner office.
As a result, in our dogged pursuit of our goals we forget our manners. We’re nice to people if they can help us hit our goal. We push them out of the way if they’re not useful to us. Without meaning to, we can become self-absorbed schemers.
Ask yourself, “Am I achieving a task – and forgetting my organization’s mission?”
Are you making money to support your family – but forgetting the family that you’re trying to support?
For more information on the work habits you need to break, check out What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.