The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top (part 4 of 5)

(this is the fourth part of a five part series)

As I mentioned before, i’ll follow-up the habits with some commentary on how I see these in my daily life.

The 20 habits that prevent you from getting to the top

11. Claiming credit that we don’t deserve: the most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success. 

Claiming credit we don’t deserve is, if anything, severely annoying. This day and age, it’s almost delusional to think that anything worth accomplishing is accomplished alone. You know that, and believe me, other people know that as well.

Yet, what is also true is that people love faces and stories. Steve Jobs didn’t sat down to design the iPhone yet people see him as the man that brought it to the world. This attribution phenomena is a common one, and you should expect it (or even take it as an opportunity) when communicating to other people about the amazing job your team did.

Standing up and saying “my team did all the work, not me” is humble, but pointless. Does this mean that you should go in front of the camera’s and say that it’s all your invention and everybody should feel so lucky that you’re even talking to them about it? – definitely not. Bear with me while I explain further.

You see, when you say “my team did all the work, not me” the only thing people hear about that message is “not me”. That you didn’t do it and you’re just a spoke person for some huge expensive structure of people, processes and tools that somehow managed to [luck maybe?] deliver results. As one of my mentors told me, as good as this structure is, they still need someone to coordinate, provide direction and leadership, and that’s you. Leadership is either implicit or explicit. By taking ownership, directing and delivering results, you promote accountability for delivering the results. It means you can take ownership to improve things and to do so at the risk of failure. If anything goes wrong, everybody knows who’s to blame. Think football managers (they’re not the ones kicking the ball in the field you know?). The opposite is a team in where somebody is involved but not committed to be in charge. In this sort of team, you don’t do anything perceived as risky, and when things go wrong, usually fingers start pointing.

You’re only a “genius with a thousand helpers” if you start trying (and failing) to answer all questions, from UX to product features passing by operations and architecture.

Be the face that is accountable for the success or failure of what you’re doing – be the face that your stakeholders attribute to the structure of people, processes and tools that deliver success and take your core team with you to do so reliably, wherever you go. Just don’t stand in front of everybody pretending you had no help.

12. Making excuses: the need to reposition our annoying behaviour as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.

Excuses like “I’m impatient”, “I’m just not good at doing this” or my personal favourite “I’m a blunt person” usually mask something other than a genetic defect.

When I hear these words, my usual immediate reaction is to say “Can you remember a time in where you weren’t [impatient, good at  doing something similar, blunt]?” or when it’s phrased as “I’m just not good at doing X” I usually reply “Really? Why not?”

You see, its not a genetic defect that’s limiting these people from accomplishing their goals – it’s most likely their self-imposed limiting beliefs. Fortunately, those are somewhat easier to change (than genetics).

Part of what I consider to be my job is to coach people into becoming better professionals (hopefully becoming better human beings in the process). You can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. My most efficient technique to change a belief is to slice it, i.e. if you say “I’m just not good at doing X”, you slice it by saying “I’m good at doing X when Y”.

I can share a personal example of this habit: I had a very limiting belief that read along the lines of “I’m not a disciplined person – I’m a starter not a finisher”. As you can imagine, this belief served me well in many occasions, usually bringing out my creativity and idea generation resources. Since I tended to start a lot more things than I finished, this belief also nudged me in the direction of keeping a better backlog of ideas and thoughts (from where a lot of material comes from). But as you can also imagine, this belief was very limiting in a lot of circumstances. As a result of having this limiting belief, my inner-voice always kicked-in and said “you’re doing it diligently now, but you’ll likely forget to do it in 2 weeks time…”. Not a good inner-voice to hang around with 🙂

So i sliced it: a new belief is “I’m disciplined in sprints of 1 month”. During a “sprint” of 1 month I can indeed focus and be disciplined to achieve a goal. It’s not a big life commitment, it’s just a month. Imagine for example exercising – i can say to myself, “I can be disciplined to hit the gym for 1 month”. Bang! Immediate results.

13. Clinging to the past: the need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.

Marshall says: “Understanding the past is perfectly admissible if your issue is accepting the past. But if your issue is changing the future, understanding will not take you there”

Failures in the past are not always good indicators of failure in the future. Same with successes.

This habit, in my view, takes two forms: First, people that live in the resentment of a past they can’t change while experiencing the anxiety of a future they have yet to life, failing to enjoy and understand the present. Second, people that use past experience as a limiting factor in their (or their company’s) development.

I’ve seen several examples of this with colleagues at work, the most prominent one being the somewhat company-universal understanding that “we’ve tried that in the past and it didn’t work” or a better version “the last guy that tried to do that was fired”.

One particular example of this (one that I’m proud to have lead) was a very time-consuming phase in the product acceptance lifecycle. Somehow culturally, the habit of doing this activity was installed and, even though it didn’t improve the quality of the product (i.e. the lean definition of waste), previous attempts to change it were dismissed, or worse, resulted in missed product deadlines and unemployment. I worked together with my team to successfully reduce this cycle from 3 weeks to 3 days, beating disbelief and opening the door to further enhancements on other parts of the delivery lifecycle. We had the past influence our decisions but not limiting our actions. We didn’t cling, we moved on.

14. Paying favourites: failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.

“You can’t ask a flower to grow and pour water in the other one”. We all know the type: the guy that behaves in just the way his upper level manager likes (never mind it might not be the right thing to do). Rewarding “suck-up” behaviour from your peers or from your team usually doesn’t correlate with great results.

Sounds like a simple concept right? Praise the employee according to the value he provides the company.

Yet, time and time again you see examples of the opposite.

My favourite example is of a senior manager that famously asked all their peers to “be autonomous” but then rewarded those who hanged around him longer asking for help. Those peers that brought problems, but also got him to participate in the joy of coming up with the solutions, were praised – while those peers that solved the problems by themselves were not.

Classic example of playing favourites.

15. Refusing to express regret: the inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognise how our actions affect others.

Genuinely saying “I’m sorry” feels great.

Marshall writes: “That’s the beauty of the process, when you declare your dependence on other people, they usually agree to help”.

Now this does not mean you’re not entitled to have your own opinion. As much as you want to have all situations be win-win, or have all your relationships be the hold-hands and sing-songs-together kind, truth is reality is a bit different. People do clash, opinions do differ and you will be faced with a time in where you need the skill to assertively voice your opinion without burning bridges or scarring relationships.

But sometimes you’re also wrong, and for those times, saying “I’m sorry” allows the relationship to move on and the real problem solving to begin.

My favourite example of this was an interaction with my manager on my first weeks of work: we were both working on a spreadsheet and the discussion got heated when we disagreed on how to present a particular important part of the information. My manager got too emotional (likely just tired) and started showcasing his not-so-subtle skills of passive-aggressiveness and condescendence 🙂 I addressed it directly and assertively voiced what my opinion on the subject was and agreed to move on. After half-hour, he apologised directly and our relationship has since thrived. Today we are still great friends. (here’s what I said: “Can we pause? When you just said “Z” in that tone and context my head got it as condescending. I heard you and me think differently about this one bit and that’s OK. I heard you say that doing it like that promotes A, B and I think doing it like this promotes X, Y. So let’s run with A,B and iterate if we need to, I hope we can agree to that – does it sound fair? did i miss anything?”)

See you next week for the final 5 habits!

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