February 14, 2013

I believe there’s a bounty of buried treasure in organizations: ideas, solutions and talent that lie untapped. Among the reasons: management fails to recognize the potential in employees or even discourages their aspirations.

But let’s not pick on bosses today. Instead, let’s look at how good employees can actually get in the way of their own success. Remember, I’m talking about already valuable contributors who could be offering more.

I was inspired to write about this challenge by a participant in a recent workshop. She’s not a manager, but she has impressed her supervisors with her talent and positive influence on her team. So they nominated her for additional leadership learning. They’re investing in the future.

At the end of our workshop, when participants talked about things they’d do in the future (in leadership areas like innovation, collaboration, coaching, conflict resolution and communication), she made a statement that grabbed my attention.

She said she’d stop letting “artificial barriers” get in her way.

This smart young woman identified something important. Buried treasure in organizations can be obscured by artificial barriers of our own making. Any of us can get in our own way by letting fear, misinformation or assumptions cause us to self-censor or stand in place when we could be stepping up. We can talk ourselves out of leading.

Let me be more specific. I can name at least 10 artificial barriers we put in the way of our ideas and our aspirations:

1. Fear of overstepping our boundaries. We persuade ourselves that the response to our initiatives or outreach will be, “Mind your own business.” So, we don’t extend ourselves beyond our assigned roles or responsibilities.

2. Uncertainty as to how we’re evaluated by others. We’re not sure if colleagues and bosses see us as high performers or innovators or influential individuals — because we haven’t been told so directly or recently. Lacking good feedback, we wait to be anointed or invited before deciding to lead.

3. Memories of past missteps. If we’ve stepped on someone’s toes in the past, even inadvertently, or if we’ve been chastised by bosses or co-workers for an idea that flopped, we may feel those bruises long after they’ve healed and are ancient history. We become risk-averse.

4. Presumption of unimportance. Humility is a wonderful thing — but too much can shut down self-confidence. We can too easily presume that if we lack a title or an endorsement by powerful people, then what we have to offer mustn’t be all that valuable. We’ve yet to learn that informal influence can have as much impact as a formal, powerful title.

5. Bad advice and overdependence on the rumor mill. When we’re thinking of volunteering an idea, challenging the status quo or seeking more responsibility — to whom do we go for counsel? Are we reaching out to people who coach us toward success or who talk us out of trying? Do we give too much credence to malcontents and gossips in our midst, skewing our perspective about the organization and our chances for success?

6. Lack of connection to our bosses. We can hold ourselves back by ignoring the importance of “managing up” — learning about our organization’s strategic goals and our manager’s priorities, how our bosses want to hear about new ideas or solutions, and how to align our dreams with their realities.

7. Misplaced focus on tenure versus talent. We might think that we don’t have enough experience or haven’t spent enough time on the team — and therefore our ideas won’t get traction.  We make the mistake of thinking that “new” is defined solely in our workplace as “green” or “unproven” rather than “fresh” and “innovative.”

8. Immersion in our current work. This can be the downside to a great work ethic; our organization keeps assigning more of what we’re currently doing well to our workload. Our sense of duty and our overly-full plates keep us from looking at what else might be out there on the buffet of opportunities. While we’re doing what’s asked of us — and then some — we neglect to advocate for ourselves.

9. Waiting for formal training. When a new role involves additional knowledge or skill, we may presume we’re not qualified. I can’t tell you how many aspiring managers I’ve had to disabuse of the notion that if they haven’t been trained in budgeting, they’re unlikely candidates for promotion. (I tell them it’s among the easiest management skills to learn as you lead.) Or how many people I’ve encouraged to plunge ahead and learn the skills they covet, whether or not their organization offers formal training.  (It’s the reason I framed my own book on management, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” as a workshop, so people could train themselves, if need be.)

10. Fear of appearing ambitious. Finally, some of us just have a hard time saying, “Put me in, coach!” — for fear of appearing to lust for success at the expense of others. We don’t realize that one can be a first-class team player and at the same time, a terrific team leader.

It was easy to come up with this list of artificial barriers. All I had to do was think of the many sharp people at all levels of organizations that I’ve taught and coached about these issues — people I encouraged to:

  • Become better reporters about the realities of their organizations (strategy, systems, culture)
  • Build better relationships with their managers
  • Get clarity about their current roles and responsibilities and future opportunities
  • Find coaches and mentors who support and challenge them
  • Grab every opportunity for learning and development, formal or informal
  • Believe in themselves

After all, the best way for good people to deal with artificial barriers can be as simple as this: Get out of your own way.

* * *

In a future column, I WILL pick on bosses and organizations that build bona fide barriers to success, because it’s an important issue.  But for now, here’s the companion podcast about breaking through those “artificial barriers” we construct for ourselves.

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
Jill Geisler

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