Even the highest performers have blind spots or weaknesses that, if left unaddressed, can truly wreck their careers.

We’ve studied career derailment since 1983. By comparing successful executives with those who derail, our researchers have identified some simple career mistakes that force formerly successful careers off track.

Many managers are hired originally for their contributions as individuals, and at first their value to the organization is measured in terms of bottom-line results. As they move up in the organization, however, they find themselves judged not only on results, but also on how well they manage relationships with people — both inside and outside the organization.

Having problems with interpersonal relationships is one of the most common characteristics of leaders who derail. The ability to work well with others clearly separates the managers who succeed from those who don’t.

Executives who are unable to establish strong interpersonal relationships are described by their bosses, peers, and direct reports as:

  • Insensitive
  • Overly competitive
  • Self-isolating
  • Dictatorial
  • Overly critical
  • Overdemanding
  • Easily angered
  • Arrogant
  • Emotionally explosive
  • Manipulative
  • Aloof

Avoid These Small, But Career-Wrecking, Mistakes

Here are some examples of behaviors that exhibit low self-awareness and weak interpersonal skills:

  • Using a tired icebreaker such as, “How’s the family?” Don’t do this unless you’re familiar with the family members’ names and interests; people may not want to chat with you about their personal lives and this may come off as false or insincere. Also, if you ask a question, be prepared to listen to the answer.
  • Scheduling a weekly lunch meeting with each of your direct reports to get to know them better. While this may seem like a noble idea, is it really what they want? Spending their lunch breaks with you may be the last thing they want to do and may seem to be forcing familiarity.
  • Interrupting or talking over others. Whether you’re dealing with your boss, peers, or direct reports, take the feelings and perspectives of others into account and don’t cut people off in the middle of a sentence. Listen without judging and be empathetic. If you’re talking with a direct report, be aware of and diplomatic about the power relationship between managers and subordinates.
  • Confusing hearing with listening. They aren’t the same thing. If you’re holding a conversation with someone in your office, turn away from your e-mail and the papers on your desk. In the same way, when someone else is speaking, don’t just wait for your turn to talk — stay in the moment. Deliberately and actively listen, absorbing what’s being said and allowing that to influence what you have to say.
  • Using humor inappropriately. Your closest friends may appreciate your dry wit and sarcastic asides, but those you work with may not.
  • Making private information public. If something is said to you in confidence, keep it private. If you don’t, you will lose credibility and trust, both of which are essential to effective leadership.
  • Keeping your decision-making process a secret. If you gather new facts that lead you to change direction, openly share those facts with others so they understand how you came to a new decision.
  • Collaborating on everything. Know when to wrap up the consensus-reaching and make a decision. Effective leadership requires the ability to work collaboratively and the ability to move forward and take action. Be willing to share information and involve others in making decisions, but don’t go overboard. Understand which leadership style best fits a given situation and put it into use.

Honestly assess your own behaviors. If you realize that you have made any of these missteps, commit to your own professional development by taking action now to make any needed adjustments.

That way, you’ll avert career failure and progress smoothly up the management ladder.

Career derailment is often highly predictable by coworkers, but the executives themselves are usually unaware of or unwilling to fix the flaws that lead to their derailment.

One reason that a lack of interpersonal skills plays such a large role in executive derailment is that the behaviors associated with those skills are difficult to change. But with time and intention, people can deliberately improve their interpersonal relationships and avoid career-wrecking mistakes.

This blog post is adapted from the content in Keeping Your Career on Track: 20 Success Strategies.

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