How to Avoid Career Derailment: Tips for a Smooth Ride to Success

Careers can often be full of landmines, and sometimes we don’t recognize the warning signs until we step on them. Enter my next strategy: Avoid career derailments

First and foremost, gossip. Gossip is a professional landmine. Engaging in gossip is toxic at any time, but particularly in the workplace. It creates a culture of mistrust. It hampers creativity and efficiency because people become focused on watching their backs for fear of being the gossip subject. It can even prompt good employees to leave. At its core, gossip is a form of bullying. Try to avoid people that are known, or prove themselves to be, gossips. That is their personal brand, and you don’t want to be a part of it. Their reputation can rub off on you. Plus, participating in gossip is a huge time-suck.

Sure, we’ve all listened to some juicy gossip, but to regularly be known as the originator or the spreader of gossip is a bad, bad career move. If you are spreading gossip, people will not be inclined to trust you, and that will hinder your potential for promotions. Keep in mind that as a leader, you are exposed to confidential information from budgets to staffing re-orgs. Companies only promote employees that they trust will keep private information confidential. You know the phrase, “loose lips sink ships”? Well, they can also sink careers.

Early in my career, I worked with a woman that was a gossip. She was the receptionist at our company. She knew everyone because there was only one way in the office, to walk past her desk. Shortly after joining the company, I was given a heads up about her reputation. I started at the company as the 34th employee. I worked there for 11 years, and when I left, we were a global company, closer to 5k employees, and still growing. The opportunities for any employee in that company at that time were limitless. During my tenure, I received four promotions. She remained a receptionist until she left on her own. Every employee had a golden ticket but, with perpetual gossiping as her personal brand, no one wanted to cash hers. Bottom line is, gossip is not worth your energy or attention. Skip that stop.

Another career landmine is perfectionist behavior. We all have our perfectionist moments, but striving for absolute flawlessness can ultimately be detrimental, and setting excessively high-performance standards is unrealistic. We are human beings; we all make mistakes, particularly when learning and trying new things. It’s what makes life exciting and fun — not the mistakes per se, but trying and being open to new things! Research shows that high achievers can bounce back fairly quickly from disappointment, while perfectionists tend to beat themselves up and wallow in negative feelings. I have those tendencies, and often need to remind myself, perfect doesn’t exist! Good enough is just that – move on.

I wrote about the value of being a good writer earlier. When I write, my perfectionist tendencies surface, there is always a better way to say something, so I spend too much time on writing projects. As a way of dealing with it, I’m in a group that requires writing five times per week. Participants are assigned a topic and a deadline. You write it, submit the final draft, and then start the next. It gets you in the flow of working faster, judging yourself less, letting go of perfection, and creating a sense of accomplishment. I took the first class and enjoyed it so much that I signed up for a second. While it is a lot of work, I love how I feel after writing and posting my essay, like I’m Rocky on the Philadelphia Art Museum steps. I’ve risen to the challenge once again. If you suffer from perfectionist tendencies – identify when they are most dependably present and consider ways to overcome them. Don’t let this hold you back from your potential.

The next two career derailers are personalities to avoid: egocentrics and narcissists. I know this is not you, but perhaps your boss, one of your colleagues, or one of your staff members could exhibit behaviors of these personalities. These are tough people to work with. They are self-centered, and everything is about them. They don’t care about you, your career, their boss, not even the company, only about themselves. 

I had the misfortune of working with one of these personalities. I had a staff member that was a narcissist. He was brilliant, one of the most creative people that I’ve ever encountered. Also, he was a horrible manager, lacked integrity, and was only concerned about himself and his personal success. I hired him for his brilliance and fired him for his narcissism. I am always on the look-out for these two personality types — so I can avoid them! The drama this guy created in our department was unimaginable, not to mention unproductive. The people who worked most closely with him will probably harbor the memories of their interactions with him for years, sadly. My advice? Extricate yourself from these people in your career and life.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations! You are on the right path! You are smart, driven, and committed to learning. Surround yourself with people that you respect and that are a reflection of you and your values, and avoid building professional relationships (if possible) with those that don’t.

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Kim Martin