Are You Holding Yourself Back?


Stuck in a rut?

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You may have accepted a great job, but that doesn’t mean you want to stay in it forever. So what happens if, years later, you’re still in the same position? You may be tempted to blame your boss. Or the economy. Or the company itself. And there may be reason to do so. A recent Gallup poll found a whopping 70 percent of U.S. employees are either not engaged in their work or are actively disengaged--and, according to Gallup, bad managers were most often to blame. It’s also true that the economy is still recovering, and companies continue to eliminate jobs and push off promotions and new hires. And there are plenty of headlines to remind us of how tough it remains to find a new job. (Even with unemployment dropping, there are still more than 10.8 million unemployed people out there looking for work.)

Still, if you’re not advancing as quickly as you’d like--or as quickly as those around you--it may have less to do with the economy or other external factors than with your own habits and beliefs. The good news: You can control them. Identify the patterns or thought processes that may be holding you back, and you can start changing them immediately. We’ve pulled together six common career-clogging culprits. Any of these sound familiar?

The Culprit: Fear

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When you’re fearful of something--whether it be snakes or speaking to crowds--the effects can actually be physiological. But they don’t have to be permanent. By using “exposure therapy,” a fancy term for facing your fear head-on, Northwestern University researchers found you can actually change your neural reaction to objects or situations that once scared you (a.k.a. calm your nerves). When Katherina Hauner, a postdoctoral fellow in neurology, monitored the brains of those who faced what scared them most (in that case, spiders), she found subjects were able to change their neural reaction to even the hairiest arachnids. But here’s the key: The subjects in the experiment followed a 14-step process, starting more than six meters away from a tarantula that was kept in an enclosed terrarium and, eventually, touching or holding the spider.

Try: Taking a series of gradual steps toward whatever scares you. If the thought of speaking at a conference or a board meeting, say, leaves your heart pounding and your palms sweaty, start small. Focus on speaking up more often in meetings. Volunteer to take the lead in a group presentation. Practice speaking in front of friends. It may seem obvious, but as the situations and interactions become more familiar, Hauner found that you activate a part of the brain that actually makes it easier to grapple with what’s holding you back. Once you can visualize an actual episode in which you overcame your fear--even on a small scale--the sometimes debilitating effects of your fears will diminish.

The Culprit: Buried Feelings

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If you’re frustrated by conditions at work or angry about something a colleague said or did, and you’re not dealing with your feelings--either by addressing the cause or by discussing the feelings with someone you trust--you can spend a lot of energy repressing them instead. That means less energy directed at preparing for that presentation or untangling whatever situation has made you so anxious. Worse, keep your emotions inside and you can easily slip into a passive-aggressive pattern of keeping your mouth closed but acting out your feelings through actions (even subconsciously)--by arriving late to a meeting called by a colleague who made you angry, say, or tuning out when the target of your frustration is speaking. While your target may not even notice, other people likely will. And your reputation could suffer.

Try: Identifying the causes for your feelings and focusing on how to manage them. In the meantime, talk it out with someone you trust (and who has your best interest at heart).

The Culprit: Assuming the Worst

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So you hear whispers and laughter when you walk by and assume your coworkers are talking about you? The problem with feeling suspicious about how people perceive you is that you just may end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy, says a University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business study. The subjects who assumed the worst after hearing laughter in another room were 3.63 times more likely to be excluded later, found researchers. Why? You’re more likely to hold yourself back from joining conversations with your colleagues or may even avoid them altogether if you feel like they’re talking negatively about, or excluding, you. And if you feel less engaged with your colleagues, you’re likely to feel less engaged with your work, which could affect your performance.

Try: Pouring on the charm instead, says study author Karl Aquino. Push yourself to reach out to them and to initiate conversations. You may find your fears are totally unfounded. And, regardless, you’ll give them less reason, and opportunity, to talk about you.

The Culprit: Irrational Exuberance

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Take off those rose-colored glasses, say experts. Bad decisions are often derived from subconscious “irrational levels of optimism,” says David Gilbert, Harvard professor of psychology. The easier something is for us to imagine, says Gilbert, the more likely we think it can happen for us. Unfortunately, this train of thought is rife with misjudgments, even when the course of action—and outcome--seems so obvious in your mind.

Try: Sleeping on it before making any big decision, says a new Harvard study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Study author Maarten Bos found that subjects who were allowed to step away from the action and take a nap before making a decision had a clearer handle on a situation. The result? Wiser choices.

The Culprit: Leaning Out

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Many of us all fall within one of two behaviors at work, “avoidance” or “approach,” says a new Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience study run by the Beckman Institute of the University of Illinois. Guess which one people prefer?

Approach behavior, such as moving toward another person to suggest you desire more interaction, doesn’t just look inviting. It actually showed up on scans of subjects’ central nervous system. When looking at the brain and sweat gland activity to determine subconscious responses, they found that those who exhibited approach behavior came across as convincing, trusting and competent.

Try: Leaning in toward someone when they’re talking, or even putting a hand on their upper arm, particularly in a tense situation. It can quickly, and positively, shape how others perceive you—even if you’re feeling more ambiguous inside.

The Culprit: Oversensitivity

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If you think you’re the only one who wasn’t invited to happy hour or recognized on your birthday, think again. It’s likely it’s happened to your boss too, and probably other successful colleagues as well—only they act with indifference so you don’t even notice, say UC Berkeley researchers. According to Maya Kuehn, the lead author of a study presented at a Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, people with authority are successful partly because they deal better with the “slings and arrows of social life” and don’t let it ruffle their feathers or affect the way they act at work.

Try: Thinking like a boss. According to Kuehn, bosses even initiated more social opportunities after feeling left out of a group. Supervisors act unfazed by rejection and so should you.

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