Career Coach: Are your derailers holding you back?

February 7

A few years ago, I wrote a Career Coach column titled “Your strengths can blow up your career; knowing that is key to prevention.” Since that time, I have coached many more executives and leaders. and this issue continues to plague them.

My fellow coaches and I have witnessed so many people who aspire to higher-level positions kill their chances because of their personality derailers. It is so frustrating to watch someone who has incredible potential sabotage their own success because of faults in their behaviors and personality.

Could this be you, and if so, what should you do about it?

Marshall Goldsmith, in his book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” identified 20 habits that can hold you back from the top. They are things such as speaking when angry, being overly negative, making excuses, not listening, passing judgment, telling the world how smart you are, failing to give proper recognition and playing favorites.

Similarly, David Dotlich and Peter Cairo, in their book “Why CEOs Fail,” point out 11 behaviors that can serve as derailers. These 11 are also captured by the Hogan Development Survey, an assessment developed by Hogan Assessment Systems that measures the dark side of people or how people behave when they are under stress and pressure.

Coaches often use assessments to measure a person’s potential derailers. These might include determining whether you are excitable or volatile (moody, hard to please, easily annoyed); skeptical or distrusting (cynical, focused on the negative); cautious (slow to make decisions, resistant to change); reserved (aloof, indifferent to the feeling of others); a passive resister or leisurely (uncooperative, overtly helpful but privately stubborn); bold or arrogant (inflated feelings of self-worth); mischievous (limit-testing); colorful or melodramatic (poor listening skills; attention-seeking, interruptive); imaginative or eccentric (thinking or acting in unusual ways); diligent or perfectionistic (hard to please, micromanages); and dutiful (eager to please and reluctant to act independently).

Many of these behaviors sound like they could be good ways to act. For example, being skeptical can be important at times. So can being dutiful or diligent or imaginative. The key is that while all of these behaviors can be effective, it is when individuals cross the line that problems erupt.

This often happens when people are under stress or pressure of some sort. Maybe they aren’t getting enough sleep or exercise or eating right. Maybe they are working a lot of overtime or have work problems or home problems or any number of intense issues. Instead of just being confident, they are arrogant. Instead of being cautious, they won’t make any decisions. Once individuals cross the line, watch out — the impact on others around them can be deadly and have dire consequences for them and for others.

Such disruptive behaviors don’t even have to be a large part of someone’s makeup. Some speculate that even a derailer that accounts for just 2 percent of a person’s personality can undermine the remaining 98 percent. It only takes a few blow-ups or manifestations of their derailers in front of others for them to no longer consider this person a viable candidate for a job or promotion.

What to do about our derailers?

The key is not to eliminate them, but to manage them. This way you can spot failure coming from a long way off, and you can take the steps needed to keep you from going off track.

It is important to become self-aware — learn what your potential derailers are. Using an assessment is one way to better understand your strengths and potential problem areas. Is your stress triggered by conflict, financial pressure, boredom, intense peer competition or job complexity? Ask for feedback from others and listen to it.

Increase the variety of experiences you have on your job to enhance your developmental learning on the job. Using mini-projects, small strategy assignments or start-ups, you can build a stronger repertoire of skills and knowledge. You can also take courses or get coaching to enhance your leadership or interpersonal skills.

Remember that we all have potential derailers. The key is to identify them and manage them. This will enable you to stay on track as you move up in an organization.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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