How Successful People Become Even More Successful

What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith, 2007

Excellent advice for employees of any ranks, especially management. I make sure that I re-read the 20 flaws every yearly to remind myself not to ever (accidentally) commit these flaws to my dear co-workers

7 Aug 2020

What’s wrong is that they have no idea how their behavior is coming across to the people who matter—their bosses, colleagues, subordinates, customers, and clients. (And that’s not just true at work; the same goes for their home life.) They think they have all the answers, but others see it as arrogance. They think they’re contributing to a situation with helpful comments, but others see it as butting in. They think they’re delegating effectively, but others see it as shirking responsibilities. They think they’re holding their tongue, but others see it as unresponsiveness. They think they’re letting people think for themselves, but others see it as ignoring them. Over time these “minor” workplace foibles begin to chip away at the goodwill we’ve all accumulated in life and that other people normally extend to colleagues and friends. That’s when the minor irritation blows up into a major crisis.

How all of us in the workplace delude ourselves about our achievements, our status, and our contributions. We:
• Overestimate our contribution to a project
• Take credit, partial or complete, for successes that truly belong to others
• Have an elevated opinion of our professional skills and our standing among our peers
• Conveniently ignore the costly failures and time-consuming dead-ends we have created
• Exaggerate our projects’ impact on net profits because we discount the real and hidden costs built into them (the costs are someone else’s problems; the success is ours)

All of these delusions are a direct result of success, not failure. That’s because we get positive reinforcement from our past successes, and, in a mental leap that’s easy to justify, we think that our past success is predictive of great things in our future.

They do the same even when it’s a team effort. No matter how much they respect their teammates, when the team achieves great results, they tend to believe that their contribution was more significant than facts suggest.

This “I have succeeded” belief, positive as it is most times, only becomes an obstacle when behavioral change is needed.

Successful people literally believe that through sheer force of personality or talent or brainpower, they can steer a situation in their direction.

Successful people tend to have a high “internal locus of control.” In other words, they do not feel like victims of fate. They see success for themselves and others as largely a function of people’s motivation and ability—not luck, random chance, or external factors.

We tend to believe that success is “earned” through an individual’s motivation and ability (even when it is not).

To make matters worse, many people who win high payouts in the lottery often do a poor job of investing their winnings. The same beliefs that led them to buy hundreds of lottery tickets are reinforced when they win the lottery. That is, they make irrational investment decisions, hoping again that luck—rather than their skill and intelligence—will make them richer. That’s why they plunge into questionable schemes. They don’t have the base belief that they can succeed on their own, so they rely on luck.

One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, “I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!” The challenge is to make them see that sometimes they are successful in spite of this behavior.

If “I have succeeded” refers to the past, and “I can succeed” to the present, then “I will succeed” refers to the future. Successful people have an unflappable optimism. They not only believe that they can manufacture success, they believe it’s practically their due.

As a result, successful people tend to pursue opportunities with an enthusiasm that others may find mystifying. If they set a goal and publicly announce it, they tend to do “whatever it takes” to achieve the goal. That’s a good thing. But it can easily mutate into excessive optimism. It explains why successful people tend to be extremely busy and face the danger of overcommitment.

They think, quite logically, that since you pulled off a miracle once, you can pull it off again for them. So, opportunities are thrust at you at a pace that you have never seen before. You are not experienced or disciplined enough to say no to some of them. If you’re not careful, you’ll be overwhelmed in due course—and that which made you rise will bring about your fall.

The danger with this, of course, is that, unchecked, this “we will succeed” attitude leads to staff burnout, high turnover, and a weaker team than the one you started with. His biggest challenge as a leader was avoiding overcommitment.

When we do what we choose to do, we are committed. When we do what we have to do, we are compliant.

Some teachers had a calling for the profession and some teachers did it to make a living—and the best teachers were the former.

The more we believe that our behavior is a result of our own choices and commitments, the less likely we are to want to change our behavior.

If you believe your colleague Bill is a jerk, you will filter Bill’s actions through that belief. No matter what Bill does, you’ll see it through a prism that confirms he’s a jerk. Even the times when he’s not a jerk, you’ll interpret it as the exception to the rule that Bill’s a jerk. It may take years of saintly behavior for Bill to overcome your perception. That’s cognitive dissonance applied to others. It can be a disruptive and unfair force in the workplace.

Psychologically speaking, superstitious behavior comes from the mistaken belief that a specific activity that is followed by positive reinforcement is actually the cause of that positive reinforcement. The activity may be functional or not—that is, it may affect someone or something else, or it may be self-contained and pointless—but if something good happens after we do it, then we make a connection and seek to repeat the activity.

One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, “I behave this way, and I achieve results. Therefore, I must be achieving results because I behave this way.”

One of my greatest challenges is helping leaders see the difference, see that they are confusing “because of” and “in spite of” behaviors, and avoid this “superstition trap.”

Pick a quirky or unattractive behavior that you habitually do, something that you know is annoying to friends or family or coworkers. Now ask yourself: Do you continue to do it because you think it is somehow associated with the good things that have happened to you? Examine it more closely. Does this behavior help you achieve results? Or is it one of those irrational superstitious beliefs that have been controlling your life for years? The former is “because of” behavior, the latter “in spite of.”

Then there’s the protective shell that successful people develop over time which whispers to them, “You are right. Everyone else is wrong.”

If you press people to identify the motives behind their self-interest it usually boils down to four items: money, power, status, and popularity. These are the standard payoffs for success.

We get credit for doing something good. We rarely get credit for ceasing to do something bad. Yet they are flip sides of the same coin.

Avoiding mistakes is one of those unseen, unheralded achievements that are not allowed to take up our time and thought. And yet . . . many times avoiding a bad deal can affect the bottom line more significantly than scoring a big sale.

But we lose this common sense in the can-do environment of an organization—where there is no system for honoring the avoidance of a bad decision or the cessation of bad behavior. Our performance reviews are solely based on what we’ve done, what numbers we’ve delivered, what increases we have posted against last year’s results. Even the seemingly minor personal goals are couched in terms of actions we’ve initiated, not behavior we have stopped. We get credit for being punctual, not for stopping our lateness.

Given the choice between becoming a nicer person and ceasing to be a jerk, which do you think is easier to do? The former requires a concerted series of positive acts of commission. The latter is nothing more than an act of omission.

They are transactional flaws performed by one person against others. They are:
1. Winning too much: The need to win at all costs and in all situations—when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally beside the point.
2. Adding too much value: The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
3. Passing judgment: The need to rate others and impose our standards on them.
4. Making destructive comments: The needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty.
5. Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”: The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly say to everyone, “I’m right. You’re wrong.”
6. Telling the world how smart we are: The need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.
7. Speaking when angry: Using emotional volatility as a management tool.
8. Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work”: The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren’t asked.
9. Withholding information: The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
10. Failing to give proper recognition: The inability to praise and reward.
11. Claiming credit that we don’t deserve: The most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success.
12. Making excuses: The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
13. Clinging to the past: The need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.
14. Playing favorites: Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.
15. Refusing to express regret: The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.
16. Not listening: The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
17. Failing to express gratitude: The most basic form of bad manners.
18. Punishing the messenger: The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.
19. Passing the buck: The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
20. An excessive need to be “me”: Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.

The Higher You Go, the More Your Problems Are Behavioral

If the need to win is the dominant gene in our success DNA—the overwhelming reason we’re successful—then winning too much is a perverse genetic mutation that can limit our success.

The higher up you go in the organization, the more you need to make other people winners and not make it about winning yourself.

People permit themselves to issue destructive comments under the excuse that they are true. The fact that a destructive comment is true is irrelevant. The question is not, “Is it true?” but rather, “Is it worth it?”

When you start a sentence with “no,” “but,” “however,” or any variation thereof, no matter how friendly your tone or how many cute mollifying phrases you throw in to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, the message to the other person is You are wrong. It’s not, “I have a different opinion.” It’s not, “Perhaps you are misinformed.” It’s not, “I disagree with you.” It’s bluntly and unequivocally, “What you’re saying is wrong, and what I’m saying is right.” Nothing productive can happen after that. The general response from the other person (unless he or she is a saint willing to turn the other cheek) is to dispute your position and fight back. From there, the conversation dissolves into a pointless war. You’re no longer communicating. You’re both trying to win.

If you really want to tick people off, don’t recognize their contributions.

Successful people become great leaders when they learn to shift the focus from themselves to others.

The more subtle excuses appear when we attribute our failings to some inherited DNA that is permanently lodged within us. We talk about ourselves as if we have permanent genetic flaws that can never be altered.

If you’re a perfectionist or constant-approval seeker, it’s because your parents never said you were good enough. If you operate above the rules and feel you can do no wrong, it’s because your parents doted on you and inflated your importance. If you freeze around authority figures, it’s because you had a controlling mother.

Stop blaming others for the choices you made—and that goes with double emphasis for the choices that turned out well.

A virulent case of the suck-ups. The net result is manifestly obvious. You’re encouraging behavior that serves you, but not necessarily the best interests of the company. If everyone is fawning over the boss, who’s getting work done? Worse, it tilts the field against the honest, principled employees who won’t play along. This is a double hit of bad news. You’re not only playing favorites but favoring the wrong people!

Leaders can stop encouraging this behavior by first admitting that we all have a tendency to favor those who favor us, even if we don’t mean to.

We should then rank our direct reports in three categories. First, how much do they like me? (I know you can’t be sure. What matters is how much you think they like you. Effective suckups are good actors. That’s what fawning is: acting.) Second, what is their contribution to the company and its customers? (In other words, are they A players, B, C, or worse?) Third, how much positive personal recognition do I give them? What we’re looking for is whether the correlation is stronger between one and three, or two and three. If we’re honest with ourselves, our recognition of people may be linked to how much they seem to like us rather than how well they perform. That’s the definition of playing favorites.

The irony, of course, is that all the fears that lead us to resist apologizing—the fear of losing, admitting we’re wrong, ceding control—are actually erased by an apology.

This experience instilled in me the conviction that if you put all your cards in someone else’s hands that person will treat you better than if you kept the cards to yourself.

When you declare your dependence on others, they usually agree to help. And during the course of making you a better person, they inevitably try to become better people themselves. This is how individuals change, how teams improve, how divisions grow, and how companies become world-beaters.

A group of executives who comprised the top management team of one of the world’s most respected research and development organizations. Their problem: Retaining young talent. Their flaw: During presentations everyone in senior management had developed the annoying habit of looking at their watches, motioning for junior scientists to move it along, and repeating over and over, “Next slide. Next slide.” This annoying habit explained the problem.

The reality for leaders of the past and leaders in the future is that in the past very bright people would put up with disrespectful behavior, but in the future they will leave!

When somebody makes a suggestion or gives you ideas, you’re either going to learn more or learn nothing. But you’re not going to learn less. Hearing people out does not make you dumber. So, thank them for trying to help.

If your goal is to stop people from giving you input—of all kinds—perfect your reputation for shooting the messenger. On the other hand, if your goal is to stop this bad habit, all you need to say is, “Thank you.”

No one expects us to be right all the time. But when we’re wrong, they certainly expect us to own up to it. In that sense, being wrong is an opportunity—an opportunity to show what kind of person and leader we are.

Consumers judge a service business not so much when it does things right (consumers expect that) but rather by how the business behaves in correcting a foul-up. It’s the same in the workplace. How well you own up to your mistakes makes a bigger impression than how you revel in your successes.

The boss says we have to show ten percent revenue growth for the year, so when it appears we will miss that target, goal obsession forces us to adopt questionable, less than honest methods of hitting the target. In other words, the honorable pursuit of a difficult goal set by someone else transforms us into cheaters. If you examine it more closely, we’re not really obsessed with hitting the ten percent growth; our true goal is pleasing our boss.

Candace was climbing to the top, but stomping on her supporters to get there. Colonel Nicholson was building a bridge, but not winning a war. Mike was making money, but losing a wife. The seminary students were on time for a sermon, but not practicing what they preached.

People have an overwhelming need to tell you something that you don’t know, even when it’s not in their best interest. Journalists would have a hard time surviving without information compulsion.

We accept feedback that is consistent with our self-image and reject feedback that is inconsistent.

When a friend launches into an argument by saying, “I probably wasn’t paying attention . . .” you can be sure that he’s planning to show you that he was paying closer attention than you ever suspected.

Your flaws at work don’t vanish when you walk through the front door at home.

People’s opinions of our listening ability are largely shaped by the decisions we make immediately after asking, “Is it worth it?” Do we speak or shut up? Do we argue or simply say, “Thank you”? Do we add our needless two cents or bite our tongue? Do we rate the comments or simply acknowledge them?

The ability to make a person feel that, when you’re with that person, he or she is the most important (and the only) person in the room is the skill that separates the great from the near-great.

The more you subsume your desire to shine, the more you will shine in the other person’s eyes.

If you study successful people, you’ll discover that their stories are not so much about overcoming enormous obstacles and handicaps but rather about avoiding high-risk, low-reward situations and doing everything in their power to increase the odds in their favor.

If you think all the top executives have top assistants because of luck rather than design, you need a few more lessons in stacking the deck in your favor.

Lasting goal achievement requires lots of time, hard work, personal sacrifice, ongoing effort, and dedication to a process that is maintained over years. And even if you can pull that off, the rewards may not be all that you expect.

People commonly fear that if they get better at X they’ll get worse at Y—as if improvement is a zero-sum game. Not true. Statistically, if you get better at X, it helps everything else get better, too.

A lot of managers assume that their staff should be exactly like them—in behavior, in enthusiasm, in intelligence, and most especially, in how they apply that brainpower.

You need different voices, different mindsets, different personalities in the mix. In my experience, it’s the odd out-of-left-field dissenting voices, the ones challenging groupthink and the status quo, that make an organization hum and thrive.

You can’t motivate 200 people to conquer a hill and, when they all start charging, say, “Wait a minute. Maybe this isn’t such a smart plan.” Do that a few times, and no one’s going to be inspired to take hills for you. They will just sit there and wait.

By all means, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But realize that it doesn’t apply in all instances in management. If you manage your people the way you’d want to be managed, you’re forgetting one thing: You’re not managing you.

Managers who are blind to the changes in this new cohort of free agents are operating like dangerous, deluded executive bigots. (It’s no different than a manager refusing to hire a young married woman because he believes she will leave her job eventually to have babies and, therefore, is not serious about her career. It’s easy to forget that there was a time not too long ago when almost everyone thought this way.)

Almost every economic model has historically assumed that money is the key motivator for any employee. And so bosses assume that if they pay their people top dollar, they will get top performance and loyalty in return. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way anymore.

Although the writer didn’t care about the rewards for good performance, he felt strongly about being punished for poor performance. The bonus didn’t motivate him. The deduction, though, insulted him. The entrepreneur figured out how to change his employee’s behavior, but he also drove him away.

Knowledge workers would know more than any manager does.

Managers at smart companies are catching on. They’re beginning to see that their relationship with top talent resembles a strategic alliance rather than a traditional employment contract.

If you continue to harbor these prejudices and ignore the changing realities in your workplace, it can cost you your job. It can cost you your job even if you’re the top dog and are putting up great numbers.

Stop trying to change people who don’t think they have a problem.

Stop trying to change people who are pursuing the wrong strategy for the organization.

Stop trying to change people who should not be in their job.

You can’t change the behavior of unhappy people so that they become happy. You can only fix the behavior that’s making the people around them unhappy.

Finally, stop trying to help people who think everyone else is the problem.