5 Character Traits That Get In The Way of Success

In their new book, Maximum Success: Changing the 12 Behavior Patterns That Keep You From Getting Ahead (Doubleday, 2000), James Waldroop and Timothy Butler explore the habits and perspectives that they’ve seen jeopardize people’s success. Below are five character traits that get in the way of success—and what to do about them.

  1. The Impostor Syndrome (when you fear you don’t belong in your current position)
    Acrophobia—fear of heights—is a metaphor that we apply to professional life. If you’re an acrophobe, you feel, in your unconscious mind, that you don’t belong where you are—that you’re up too high. You believe that you’re an impostor and that someone is going to figure out someday that you don’t really know what you’re talking about.

    Professional acrophobia often surfaces if you received messages during childhood such as, Don’t get too big for your britches or Don’t stick out too much. At the root of such messages is this: It’s dangerous to think too much of yourself.

    There is a solution to this problem, and the first step is to identify it. The problem, at its root, is that you’re so wrapped up in feeling like an impostor, you can’t see that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. If you went around the room and analyzed each person’s credentials, you’d find that every individual would be more knowledgeable in some areas and less knowledgeable in others.

    Don’t blame yourself. Buy yourself some time. Fake it—that’s fine. It’s what people do. Act as if you’re going to win, do your homework, and the rest will take care of itself. If people look at you and don’t see you sweating and wringing your hands—even though you might want to sweat and wring your hands—they’ll gain confidence in you. They’ll express that confidence, you’ll begin to feel more confident, and it will be an upward spiral from there.

  2. The Meritocrat (when you won’t accept that life isn’t always fair)
    Sometimes the world operates in wonderfully rational ways. And sometimes the world operates in ways that are irrational. meritocrat is the person who won’t accept that life isn’t always fair and who insists that all proposals, ideas, and products be thought of rationally. The meritocrat insists on fighting the “good” fight until everyone is out of patience.

    Meritocrats may have great ideas, but they are ineffective at implementing them. It’s frustrating not to see your ideas acted upon. But there’s a difference between being right and being effective, and those feelings of annoyance and anger can end up being a roadblock. Such emotions can prevent you from seeing how to achieve the outcome that you want. People fall into this trap more often than they realize. If you know deep down inside that you occasionally slip into such rigid black-and-white thinking—beware. Life isn’t fair. If you never come to terms with that fact, then you’ll never figure out how to use your powers of persuasion to make the scale tip in your direction with the right people.

    When we work with someone who suffers from black-and-white thinking, we often suggest that the person take her ideas to a manager and present them as if they were not yet fully formed. “This is what I’d like to do,” you should say. “But I want your thoughts as well.” That approach gives the manager a sense of investment in your idea. There are also certain phrases that we suggest our clients use, such as, “I wonder if there is another way to look at this situation.” By using words and phrases that show that you see the shades of gray in a situation, you are more likely to avert battles.

  3. The Hero (when you constantly try to do too much and push too hard)
    The hero is someone who constantly tries to do too much and push too hard. Ninety-nine percent isn’t an acceptable score for the hero. Setting ambitious goals and working hard to achieve them isn’t a bad thing; it’s the hero’s compulsive nature that is the problem. It’s hard to visualize heroism as a roadblock to success, because heroes so often seem successful.

    The issue for the hero isn’t the success, it’s how she goes about achieving that success. A hero does whatever it takes to get where she wants to be. She’ll expend whatever resources are necessary and make whichever sacrifices have to be made. She storms the castle, takes out the bridge, and blasts through the wall—when 100 yards away there’s a door that she could have taken instead.

    But a hero doesn’t see the cost of “taking the hill.” She looks around and thinks, “What a great team we are! Let’s celebrate! We did it!” She doesn’t notice that nobody has fun at the party.

    Part of the problem is that the hero is a commander, not a leader. The hero leads the charge instead of saying, “Okay, we’re going to move forward together. We’re all in this as a group. We can work together to accomplish this goal.” There are times, of course, when leaders make tough decisions, because they have to be made, and there are times when leaders stretch people. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a person who charges straight ahead assignment after assignment—not because he wants to offend those around him, but because he doesn’t know how to take the group’s temperature. It’s like driving everywhere with the pedal to the metal. If you did that, you’d burn out the engine. Even machines aren’t meant to run that way. Being a hero can work for a while, but organizations that are run by heroes hit barriers. Companies can’t run on adrenaline alone.

    The big challenge for the hero is recognizing the symptoms of burnout when they appear. One symptom is under-performance by subordinates. Team members under-perform when they are asked to do too many different things at once and when they are feeling discouraged because they’re struggling to keep their heads above water.

  4. The Peacekeeper (when you see yourself as a diplomat, the glue that holds everything together)
    the hero pushes too hard and sees herself as the commander of the unit, the peacekeeper sees herself as a diplomat, the glue that holds everything together. If you’re a peacekeeper, then people often perceive you as being calm. You’re not a big fan of conflict. You’d rather not argue about it, whatever “it” is. Conflict, when it isn’t out of control, can be a really good thing. Conflict can create new ideas. Conflict becomes a thesis/antithesis/synthesis, where friction creates new ideas. Peace isn’t necessarily as good for the organization as a peacekeeper thinks it is. A peacekeeper is really afraid of conflict. He’s just not comfortable with it.

    People who are afraid of conflict also tend to fight inappropriately hard when they do fight. They don’t have a gradient scale. Either it’s no conflict, or it’s all-out war. Conflict avoiders don’t have much experience in managing conflict. They don’t know how to disagree constructively or how to make suggestions.

    Fear of conflict is about fear of power and fear of your own strength. It’s fear of doing irreparable damage, fear that the display is going to escalate.

    People who handle conflict well are those who have worked with it a lot and who aren’t afraid of it. Conflict is not something that you can get comfortable with in the abstract. You’ll never feel comfortable with conflict without engaging in it. Try desensitizing yourself systematically. Start out by having a small conflict with someone who overcharges you in a restaurant—someone who you probably won’t ever see again. Move up step by step to prove to yourself that you can handle conflict. No one will end up dead, and you can even talk with the person you’ve challenged afterwards.

  5. The Procrastinator
    Procrastination has a lot to do with shame. You’re putting off doing something because you feel—rationally or irrationally—that completing the task will lead you to feel shame in one form or another. Your shame will either come from not being able to face the challenge, from being exposed to the public as a fraud, or from somehow having your expert status in the organization compromised because you failed to deliver. Procrastinators do finally get the work done, because a deadline looms or the shame of not completing the project outweighs the shame of their work not being good enough. Whatever procrastinators do, they feel that it’s not good enough. They envision themselves at the top of the mountain, but they don’t want to learn how to climb. They imagine that everybody is watching them learn how to climb a hill. The idea of being in an introductory class is humiliating. They would do anything to avoid that sort of shame. So they never get started, they never learn, and they never take those early steps. Other people take those steps and eventually learn how to climb mountains. The procrastinator’s defense is “Well, I could have done that.” Or “Well, we lost by a score of 34 to zero, but we didn’t do too badly, given that we didn’t practice.” Since procrastinators feel like they fail all the time anyway, it’s less painful to fail if they never really try.

    The first step toward overcoming procrastination is recognizing that shame is the demon in the closet. It’s not that your skills aren’t up to par. It’s that you’re avoiding a very particular emotion that has grown out of proportion within your unconscious mind. The way to cure that shame is to stay with it and to experience it. Pay attention to how you’re feeling, and catch yourself when you’re rationalizing in order to make yourself feel better.

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