Five Common Habits That Can Kill Your Career

Chances are you are doing one or more of these things. Here’s how to notice them and change them.

Five Common Habits That Can Kill Your Career
Photo: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images Photo: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

It’s easy to identify other people’s bad habits. Maybe your coworker always rushes at the last minute to complete their part of the project, your boss shoots down ideas without even listening, and your partner is horribly disorganized. Recognizing these traits in ourselves, however, isn’t quite as easy.


“Many of us are living in [Garrison Keillor’s fictional] Lake Wobegon where all of the women are strong, all of the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average,” says David Maxfield, vice president of research for the corporate training firm VitalSmarts and coauthor of Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. “We all feel we’re above average, but that’s not possible.”

Your blind spots for your own bad habits could be keeping you from raises and promotions. In a recent study for VitalSmarts, Maxfield interviewed managers who identified the top five career killers:

1. Being disorganized and unreliable. This person doesn’t spend the necessary amount of time planning, organizing, communicating, and coordinating with others. They fail to follow through on commitments and are difficult to rely upon.

2. Doing too little too late. This person procrastinates, misses deadlines, and cuts corners rather than going the extra mile to produce great work.

3. Deflecting blame. This is the person who says, “It’s not my job.” They don’t take responsibility, cling to their job description, and are unwilling to sacrifice personal interests for a larger goal.

4.Being unwilling to change. This person is stuck in the past, complaining about the future, and repeating the same mistakes. They expect others to accept them as they are, dragging their feet in taking on new approaches.


5.Having a bad attitude. This person suffers from cynicism and negativity. They are often the contrarian, finding fault before looking for benefits.

These five habits are common, and most employees report having at least one, says Maxfield. Unfortunately, they also hold you back for two reasons: “They prevent the person from being part of the team, and people with these habits are often unable to change them,” he says.

Change is hard because we often go to denial, says Maxfield. “We find a way to blame our boss instead of listening to him or her,” he says. “In fact, from our research we found 87% of employees say they have bosses who have prevented them from getting the pay, promotions, or other opportunities they wanted because of a concern they’ve had about their performance.”

It’s also hard to change because we don’t know how. “Managers aren’t very specific about the changes they want to see,” says Maxfield. “(In our research we found that) 70% of employees who were aware that their boss was unhappy with their performance, couldn’t tell you what they were doing wrong or how they were going to change it.”

How To Change

If you’re concerned you have a bad habit that’s impacting your career, it’s time to be honest with yourself, says Maxfield. “Be willing to say, ‘This is me; I do this sometimes,’” he says. “The first step is to accept that it’s our problem and own it,” he says.

If you’re not sure, get outside opinions. Few of us are insightful enough to recognize what is holding us back, and if you want to be good at changing, you have to ask for feedback, says Maxfield, adding that there’s one caveat: “Make it safe for others to give you their honest frank perspective,” he says. “Be open and receptive to what you’re about to hear. Getting negative feedback is as precious as gold and as rare.”


Once you understand the problem, ask yourself if you really want to change. If something is not worth doing at all then why change, asks Maxfield. “You might say, ‘I’ve gotten by with this habit and I don’t want to change,’” he says. “You can consider switching jobs or employers.”

Deep Dive Into Fixing The Problem

If you decide this is something you are willing to change, become a scientist, says Maxfield. “You are your own subject,” he says. “Get a clear definition about the behaviors around the problem.”

For example, if you’re disorganized and unreliable, but not 100% of time, identify when it does happen. “Maybe you have trouble saying ‘no’ or you try to say ‘no’ and eventually back down and agree to more than you can realistically do,” says Maxfield.

Identifying the time, place, and circumstances circumscribes the problem. “It makes it smaller and easier to get your head around,” says Maxfield.

But don’t beat yourself up over having bad habits: “Most of us develop ways of doing our job and living our lives,” says Maxfield. “As the job changes and as life changes, sometimes these habits aren’t robust enough to keep up with changes. I think all of us fall into this, but it’s a case of what got you here won’t get you there.”