What Is Preventing Your Future Success?

Life is complicated. Everything is connected with everything. Cause and effect. There are so many variables in life that any attempts to come up with a simple mathematical formula so far failed. Heck, we are not even able to accurately predict weather or how much satisfaction we will have from an event in the future. So what leads us believe that we have things under control and that we can predictably repeat successes we had in the past? Many of us who reached some level of success often feel that we are entitled to it and that we are somehow better than everyone else and thus anything we do will always end up being successful. And then we are surprised and feel hurt when something doesn’t go as we planned. But why? Mostly because we misunderstand what made us successful in the past. In fact, as I wrote in Human Brain, The Biggest Liar Of All Times our brain has a unique capacity to deceive us.

Misunderstanding of past successes

Depending on your current frame of mind you tend to either overestimate or underestimate your role in the past successes. Let’s say you love running and just won a race. Why did you win? I already hear you saying things like “I trained really hard, 5 hours a day, and gave it everything I had.” And now imagine you lost. What would you say? “It just wasn’t my day. I didn’t feel on top of my game and even during the preparation I trained just 5 hours a day.” You have done exactly the same before the race you won and the race you lost. Maybe it wasn’t just you. Maybe the environment was different, and the competitors were different. Maybe it wasn’t really you that made the difference but the people around you.

As Phil Rosenzweig writes in Left Brain, Right Stuff people have an imperfect understanding of how much control they can exert. When control is low they tend to overestimate their impact, but when it’s high they tend to underestimate.

Correlation, causality and single explanations

In another of his books The Halo Effect Phil Rosenzweig talks about nine business delusions that cloud our judgement. Relevant to our discussion are those of correlation, causality and single explanation.

Why were you successful in the first place? Over the years in business world I have heard many times that “we are successful because of the way we work.” But often I have wondered is it really “because” or “in spite”? In the complex environment it is often very difficult to distinguish what is the cause and what the effect, it is very difficult to understand whether a something was helping or hurting our chances. Especially, if you fall into a trap of single explanation. We tend to blame one guy when things go wrong or one hero when there is a success. We tend to forget all the other things that had influenced the outcome. Keeping in mind that “everything is connected to everything” should help you to keep an eye on these biases.


One of the most dangerous reasons why you may easily fail in the future is overconfidence. Rosenzweig splits it into three categories. Overprecision as a tendency to be too certain that our judgment is the right one. “I’m the expert. I know what I’m doing. This and only this is the right way to do things to end up in success.”

The other category is Overestimation as a tendency to believe that we can perform at much higher level than we are capable of. “Of course I can do it even though I’ve never done anything comparable. With my track record of success anything I touch changes into gold and can end only well.”

And the last type of overconfidence is called overplacement as a belief that we can perform much better than others. “I’m much better manager than majority of others. I’m, if not the best, then definitely above average software engineer and should be treated as such. Or I’m much better driver than the others.” This one is nicely demonstrated for example in a study performed by Ola Svenson asking students to compare their driving skills to other people. 93% of the U.S. sample and 69% of the Swedish sample put themselves in the top 50%. This is a mathematical impossibility and shows how unrealistic views we have of ourselves.

Sense of entitlement

Because of the reasons mentioned above most of us believe we are better than others and thus we deserve more. We deserve better treatment, more money, better life, bigger house, more promotions and we are unhappy when we are not getting it.

I can give you just one advice. Get a dose of reality and switch your mindset to one that tells you that everyone is good at something, everyone has the right to be happy, well paid, and treated with respect. You might have some strengths that others miss, but you have also weaknesses, and all in all you are not much different from the other 7 billion human beings on this planet.

Abusing relationships with the powerful

And since we are talking about the business world there is one additional danger that can hinder your future success. I would call it “abusing relationship with the powerful” or in other words using the relationship with a powerful figure in the company to advance your agenda. It may take a form of you directly requesting the big guy to intervene on your behalf or a bit more subtle you frequently invoking his name to achieve your goals.

Either of these two will have great initial effect but rather negative long-term consequences. The moment you start relying on this technique you will stop trying hard enough on your own, you won’t develop the necessary skills, and you will most likely damage your relationship with others around you. They will reluctantly comply just to make sure they won’t make powerful enemy but ultimately they will look for ways to get back at you. You are the target since they cannot touch the big guy, can they?

And then the day comes when your powerful benefactor leaves, or you move to a different group or company. And suddenly you find out that you cannot get things done as in the past, you fail at your job, and you are confronted with the hard reality of not being as good as you thought.

So what does it all mean?

Humility is your friend. Never assume that you are better than others only because you had some sort of success. Chances are that success wasn’t your alone. You should also reset your expectations of the future. Always strive for the best but expect the worst and thus have a healthy well-balanced level of confidence. A level that inspires you to do your best but not too much to take success for granted or too little to never even try.


How do you ensure that your current success doesn’t lead to future failures? What advice do you have for others to make sure they don’t sabotage their own careers and happiness?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

It Is Personal, Even When It Shouldn’t Be

It’s all about appearances. If you work hard and focus on your tasks and your tasks only in the hopes your superior will recognize the achievements and helps you to the next level you are mistaken. At least most of the time. There certainly are great managers and leaders who recognize the potential in their subordinates and provide the opportunities where the employee can prove they can do the job but most of the time you need to be a bit more pro-active if you want to get to the next level. And when you have a remote manager who doesn’t see what you are doing every single day then this applies even more. So what do you do to make sure your boss recognizes your contributions and helps you to the next level?

Image matters

Doing a great job is important but it is not enough. You may be the best software developer or tester in the world but if no one knows about your work then no one can recognize your achievements and appreciate of what you are doing. A bit of self-promotion never hurts if done carefully. In fact, in some cultures it might be even expected. And if you feel like you don’t want to promote yourself you may ask your team mates or informal leaders to help you out here. Some managers even have the habit to finish their team meetings by giving kudos to team members who achieved something significant and also asking anyone from the team to speak up if they want to recognize some of their colleagues.

Being honest with yourself

Are you sure that the way you see yourself is also the way how others see you? Are you sure that the work you did is really that significant and worth recognition and promotion? Are you sure that you understand what shortcomings are holding you back? Most of us tend to overestimate our own achievements and contributions and marginalize the achievements of others. And as I wrote in Human Brain, The Biggest Liar Of All Times our memory doesn’t really help here. So before you start complaining that you were once again skipped for promotion be honest with yourself and look deep down into your inner self whether the problem is outside of you or whether it is something internal you should work on.

Getting feedback

The best way to learn how others see you is to get feedback. How to do that? There are tons of different ways starting with anonymous surveys and ending with actually talking to people and asking them for their honest opinion. The important aspect is to pick the right people you ask. It should be people that have at least one of these qualities: you respect their opinion; they have been in your shoes; they genuinely want to help you; they know you; they know your work; they are very different from you; they are your bosses, peers, subordinates and saw you in action; they have nothing to lose by being honest with you. And if you still don’t know how to do it you can always ask for help either your HR department or some close friend who will be able to gather the feedback for you and then will be brutally honest with you.

Having a mentor

When you know what your strengths and weaknesses are then get a mentor. Find someone who you respect for the particular skill you want to build and ask him for help. Most of us are happy helping others and sharing our experiences and wisdom. You may ask your HR department to help out, you may ask your boss or you may just actively seek someone by yourself. And depending on what skill you want to build you may look even outside of your company. When you ask HR department then ask for several options. The worst thing that could happen is that you get an official mentor that you don’t respect or where there is no chemistry or enthusiasm. Such a mentoring would be waste of time of both of you. If you find a mentor within your company and ideally also somewhere up the ladder it may help you tremendously as he or she may not only teach you a trick or two but may become your advocate and share your accomplishments with the rest of the management team. And that usually means higher visibility and more opportunities.

Building alliances

Don’t leave all the work to others. Regardless your position in the company you should always do all your best to help others. Make it a point of knowing people not just from your department but also from other groups, make it a point of greeting everyone in the company, be positive and willing to help out others even when there is no immediate reward. Give credit to others and do your best to promote the good job done by others. Why? This is the way to build alliances. This is the way to truly understand the business, to expand your horizons, to get your name out there. Next time there is a discussion about who should lead a cross departmental project, guess who will be on top of everyone’s mind.

Getting back on your feet

And what if for whatever reasons your reputation took a hit? We all make mistakes, and do or say things we would rather take back. Just don’t get too much attached to your mistakes. Get up, dust yourself off and forget that it ever happened. Others will forget in time too. And what if even after a long period of time and numerous successes there is still a shadow of that past mistake lingering above you? You have two options. First, confront whoever still holds the grudge with the new reality and ask what more you can do to show that you have learned from your mistake. Second, consider whether it is really worth your effort to try to prove that you changed to someone who doesn’t want to see it and possibly leave for a team or organization that is more open minded.

Twitter type summary: “You might be the best of the best at your job, but if no one knows then no one will recognize your achievements.”

What are your thoughts on hard work and recognition? How do you ensure that you understand who the best people on your team are even when they work remotely?

Is coaching for everyone?

In a post “Coaching approach to leading people” I talked about how to manage people using coaching approach. One question that I sometimes get is whether that approach works for everyone. The simple answer is “yes.” Coaching approach is something that works across different personality types, organizations and cultures. However, one needs to understand that it is not suitable for every situation and also the extent of success will vary from person to person.

What are the prerequisites?

There is single most important prerequisite: willingness of the person to get coached and desire to improve. If you try to coach someone who is not willing to change then no amount of coaching will work. In fact if someone doesn’t want to change then there is no approach that will work as you cannot change someone’s behavior against his will. And it doesn’t need to be just about change. For such a person you need a different management style in every interaction.

Who else? For more junior members of your team coaching will still work but may not be enough. You will need to combine it with some training, mentoring and other tools for developing people.

Is it appropriate for this situation?

The only question you should ask is whether the situation or the topic is appropriate for a coaching approach. Where coaching won’t work well is when you need to develop technical or functional skills of your employee. For this particular need some training and mentoring are generally better approaches. At the other hand where coaching really works are behavioral issues. If you need to change attitude of someone on your team (for example to be better team player, to be better listener, to be more assertive) coaching is a nice way how to achieve the goal. Though still, the person must understand the need and be willing to improve.

Is it the right management style?

It depends. As a general rule in knowledge based workplace it will do miracles that would be difficult to achieve by other means or management styles. However, there are situations when you need to adjust your management style to get things done. A typical situation would be an emergency. The same way as consensus is not the best way how to make fast decisions it is not appropriate to use coaching management style when you need your team to act fast and “without thinking”. If you are in a damage control mode you need your team to follow orders and you can leave the coaching for another time.

Will it work in my culture?

When it comes to different cultures then similarly to different people not everyone will react the same way to this approach. You may consider explaining a bit more what you are doing, what is your expectation and what are the boundaries and guidelines for you and your employee will work together. When you look at the research done by International Coach Federation (2012 ICF Global Coaching Study) coaching is a really worldwide movement and you can find presence of this profession in countries around the world. It is estimated that there are 47.500 professional coaches (18.400 in Americas; 21.300 in Europe; 2.100 in Middle East and Africa; and 5.700 in Asia and Oceania). Coaching works everywhere and you just need to be sensitive to the needs of your employee.

Twitter type summary: “Coaching works for anyone who is willing to get coached, has an open mind and a strong desire to improve.”

What are the situations when coaching didn’t work for you? What approaches did work?