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Kicking bad habits for the good of your career

This article was originally published by the Globe and Mail on Thursday, June 24, 2011 and written by Wallace Immen.

It wasn’t only his cocaine use that got Charlie Sheen booted from the popular TV show, Two and a Half Men. His studio bosses gave three other reasons for giving him the axe – reasons that can deflate corporate careers as well: unreliability, a negative attitude and resistance to change.

Mr. Sheen is an extreme case. But almost all employees are aware they have some habit that keeps them from achieving their potential at work and may be keeping them from getting raises and promotions they might have otherwise received, a new survey has found.

Yet, surprisingly, a majority of those surveyed admitted they haven’t made a serious effort to overcome their career-limiting habits, said Joseph Grenny, who did the research for a new book, Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success.

The online survey of 493 professionals found that 97 per cent admitted they know of at least one thing they do regularly that could limit their career potential. But only one-third of them said they have taken serious action to kick their bad habits. The rest tried and gave up or didn’t bother at all. That’s borne out by a separate survey Mr. Grenny did of 479 bosses, who said that fewer than 20 per cent of their employees ever make lasting changes to their career-limiting habits.

“This finding is incredibly discouraging when you consider the enormous investment companies make in performance management,” said Mr. Grenny, chairman of consulting firm VitalSmarts, based in Provo, Utah.

The survey found the top five career constrainers are:

Unreliability

If you’re unreliable, if your word can’t be trusted, or you don’t show up when you’re supposed to, or don’t complete assigned tasks, then you are a liability to your employer. It seriously undermines trust if you make promises to people and don’t fulfill them. When that happens people who have to work with you begin to build contingency plans, which leads to workarounds, distrust and resentment.

Unwillingness to take responsibility

The person who says “It’s not in my job description,” rather than “My job is to help the organization achieve the mission,” creates tremendous problems with trust between co-workers. This undermines organizational performance.

Procrastination

It’s a natural impulse for people to delay getting down to the work at hand. But the managers surveyed said procrastination is becoming a larger problem because workers face a proliferation of technological distractions, Mr. Grenny said.

Resistance to change

Reinvention and innovation are givens in most workplaces. So workers who resist change or are unwilling to learn new technology or techniques are destined to be seen as not being team players. This limits promotion prospects and pay increases.

Negative attitude

Nobody likes to be around naysayers because they suck the enthusiasm out of people and drag down the overall team effort.

Along with these five prime career limiters, employees and employers alike identified several other types of bad behaviour on the job, including disrespect, short-term focus, selfishness, passive aggressiveness, and aversion to taking risks.

“Maybe they won’t get you fired but these habits can be extremely costly in terms of job satisfaction, promotions and pay increases,” Mr. Grenny said.

According to nearly half of the bosses polled, no one who has one of the top five limiting habits can really succeed if they aren’t seen to be making an effort to change. Fifty per cent believed that addressing employees’ glaring bad habits is much more important than increasing their technical skills.

However, trying often doesn’t translate into succeeding. Sixty per cent of the employees said they had worked on changing a bad habit, but had only made limited progress. Another one-third said they had succeeded in making significant changes. But 10 per cent said they hadn’t even tried to change.

For those who do not change, the prospect is bleak: “Bosses indicated they are most likely to give up on those who aren’t trying to change and leave them stuck where they are,” Mr. Grenny said.

The core message is that those who not only inventory their career-limiting habits but also make a concerted effort to overcome them are up to three-times more likely to succeed, he said.

“The best way to get motivated is to create a default future. Ask yourself: Looking forward what will my career look like in the future if I don’t change this habit? Let’s say the habit makes you miss out on a 2-per-cent raise early in your career. Look at the pay costs, the relationship costs and the limit you put on your potential,” he suggests.

“That’s generally what people need to get over their resistance and start to make changes.”

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SHAPING UP

Joseph Grenny’s workout for shaking bad habits:

Create a motivation statement

Envision your “default future” – what your career could be like if you are repeatedly passed up for promotion. For example, if a 30-year-old employee earning $60,000 is passed up for a promotion with a 2-per-cent raise, he will incur a loss of $59,780 over the rest of his career.

Invest in new skills

Top performers hone their craft. Actively develop the expertise you need to be viewed as a top performer through training, workshops or books – but make sure this is only one part of a bigger change strategy.

Hang with hard-workers

Habits that keep you back are likely enabled, tolerated or encouraged by co-workers. Distance yourself from the office slackers. Tap into positive peer pressure by surrounding yourself with hard-working friends who share your career goals.

Find a mentor

Changing habits requires help. Find a trusted mentor to encourage your progression and help you navigate the development opportunities that exist within the company.

Control your workspace

Enlist the power of your surroundings. If you’d benefit from close association with another team, ask to move offices. Tune out, or turn off, electronic interruptions that keep you from being productive.