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5 common (but dangerous) pieces of career advice

Well-meaning people give these tips all the time, but here’s why you should think twice.

5 common (but dangerous) pieces of career advice
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When you’re growing your career or advancing in your role, good advice from a trusted mentor can be motivating and inspiring. But what about the bad advice you’re also bound to receive? Whether people mean well or are just plain critical, judgements people share about you can be disorienting, distressing, and disheartening.

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But it’s possible to take bad advice in stride and learn from it, while not letting it get in your way.

A hidden truth: Bad advice is always based on context—and you have to be the final judge of which advice is helpful to you and which you should leave behind.

  • Consider whether you’ve asked for input. When you have, and when you’re prepared for a variety of feedback, it’s always easier to hear. But even if you haven’t asked for input, it can be helpful to hear others’ perspectives.
  • Consider the source. Your grandmother was right about this—the feedback you receive is frequently more about the person who gives it than it is about you. The information you get will demonstrate what someone else has paid attention to, what they’ve prioritized, and what they value. Even so, it can be valuable to you as well.
  • Consider the intent. This one is especially important, because intent may not align with impact. Someone may care about you and want the best for you, but may not deliver their input gracefully—but their ideas may still have merit for you.
  • Consider the limits. Sometimes you’ll get feedback you can learn from, brush off, or handle. But if advice crosses the line, you’ll want to look for help and support from your leader or your human resources group.

Some of the worst advice can be the seeds of learning and growth—even if it’s tough to receive. Here are some doozies based on discussions in several online communities (including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter). They range from humorous to hurtful, and can help you move forward positively no matter what.

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“Try to blend in”

Some of the worst advice has included suggestions to blend in—or to be quiet or small in comparison to others. One woman reported her boss pulled her aside and told her she should, “Let others have the big ideas.” And another person said his manager suggested he shouldn’t sound so smart when he talks. One particularly bad boss recommended, “You shouldn’t talk so much, you need to blend in better.”

What to do with this kind of bad advice? Remind yourself to be your best. Of course, you want to respect others and avoid dominating in a meeting. And it’s wise to adapt your message so others can hear your ideas and you can be as persuasive as possible. But the biggest takeaway from this poor advice is to bring it. Put your best ideas forward and don’t play small. You have talents and capabilities which can help your team and your organization—so be confident in demonstrating all you have to offer.

“Don’t aim too high”

Another category of bad advice has to do with avoiding ambition, learning, or new opportunities. Sometimes the people around you will suggest you don’t waste time getting a degree or that you avoid being too goal-directed in growing your career. These may be reflections of colleagues’ insecurities or their own preference to avoid risk or hard work.

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The key seems to be whether you’re seeking growth at the expense of others, or if you’re taking others along for the positive journey. A study by ResumeLab found people generally don’t mind ambition in their coworkers when they feel valued by them as well. As long as your own growth doesn’t come by stepping on others, you can grow without damaging relationships.

The study also found there are advantages to ambition. Specifically, when people are ambitious, they tend to produce greater output, which benefits themselves, their teams, and their company. In addition, your own growth can be a vehicle to build relationships. If you’re seeking your project management certificate, you can pursue it with a coworker and take the classes and test together.

Put this insight to use by empowering yourself to grow, learn, and advance, and making your efforts about not only you, but benefits for others as well.

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“Try a different working style”

Interestingly, bad advice about work can come across in multiple forms. One person who was overworked and nearing burnout was told by her boss to be more positive about her workload. Another person was told to stop completing his work so fast—because he was intimidating others. This advice can also come from colleagues who recommend you not work so hard.

When you receive bad advice about how you work, when you work, how much you work, or your work habits, it can be a signal of others’ desire to control or a signal that others lack creativity in considering how many different ways work can get done. In reality, there are multiple right answers to how you work.

There are times when you may want to go fast and pull out all the stops on a passion project. Or, there may be a circumstance in which you want to work on a weekend because you’re flexing your time for a Monday afternoon off. If you have this kind of control over your schedule and you’re honoring both yourself and your work responsibilities, there’s every reason to empower yourself. And on the other side of the coin, if you’re overworked, overwrought, and struggling with your well-being, it’s healthy to share your concerns and be assertive with your boss about the need for some relief.

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The important thing is to be assertive about your needs and work in the way that works best for you—taking care of yourself and taking care of your work obligations in an appropriate balance.

“Hide yourself”

Perhaps the most hurtful kind of advice can be when it’s personal. A large number of people say they are told they smile too much or too little, or they are too nice or too aggressive. One woman was told she was too masculine; another woman was advised her hair was too blonde. Someone else was told to soften her accent, and someone else to never to wear red heels.

The biggest lesson from this bad advice is to be yourself. It can be tough to stand strong in the face of personal criticism, but when you’re self-assured, it’s good for you and also empowering for those around you. You can set an example by being confident about who you are and how you present yourself.

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Of course, it’s also wise to adjust for circumstances and others around you to some extent. This is the nature of community, in which every member has not only rights but also obligations to others. You’re not seeking to offend others, and it makes sense to embrace different points of view and adapt appropriately. But you also need to be yourself—finding the balance of expressing yourself and embracing others in the community who are also being themselves.

“Re-evalaute if you’re spending too much on personal needs”

People also hear recommendations about their work and family. One woman was advised not to have a baby because it would be damaging to her career. Another woman received a recommendation to avoid taking a promotion because she wouldn’t be able to focus appropriately on her family. A man was told he should lean in and focus less on his children. Another was told he wasn’t cut out for a certain job because he had kids.

The lesson here is to make your own decisions and choices about work and family. A study by MyPerfectResume found 34% of people thought having a family was a top ingredient for success in life, while 30% said it was having a stable job. And 83% said they would sacrifice their career for success in their personal life, while 77% said they would sacrifice their personal life for success in their career. The bottom line: Both career and family are important, and sacrifices can occur on both sides depending on your priorities and your circumstances. There are many ways to find success and fulfillment, so your own values are best to guide your choices.

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Overall, there’s a lot you can learn from others’ experiences, perspectives, and pathways. But in the end, you’ll want to weigh everything against your own inner strength and point of view. When you bring your best and when you’re confident and empowered, you’ll be more happy, fulfilled, and satisfied. And this is the best advice of all.


Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works at Steelcase and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.

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