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Don't Sabotage Yourself

A few months ago I read a great HBR blog by Susan David titled "Don't Sabotage Yourself"

Susan David is a founder and co-director of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and a member of the Harvard faculty. She co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Happiness( Oxford University Press, 2013) and directs Evidence Based Psychology, a leadership development organization and management consultancy.

In the blog Susan David explains how self-handicapping "which involves anticipating a real or imagined obstacle that might get in the way of success, and using that obstacle as an excuse ... allows us to protect ourselves from the pain of assuming responsibility for our failures, and people do it all the time."

At The Frontier Group our career coaches work with our career transition and outplacement clients on how to address and resolve the self handicapping behaviors that are derailing their careers.

This behavior comes from a variety of sources - self-confidence, low self esteem, fear of success, etc. As Susan David pointed out in her HBR blog:

"Self-handicapping allows us to protect ourselves from the pain of assuming responsibility for our failures, and people do it all the time. In a groundbreaking 1978 study, psychologists Berglas and Jones found that participants who "succeeded" at a test (that was really just luck-based) were more likely to choose to take a performance-inhibiting drug before taking a second test. In other words, they actively set themselves up for failure on the second try. By doing this, they could blame their subsequent poor performance on the drug, and also protect their earlier feeling of success.

In a more recent set of experiments conducted by psychologist Sean McCrea at the University of Konstanz in Germany, participants were asked to take several intelligence tests under a variety of conditions. The research showed that people who were encouraged to make excuses for their poor performance — blaming poor performance on loud noises, for example — maintained high self-esteem, but were also less motivated to improve.

This kind of behavior is often so subtle and habitual that we don't notice we're doing it. Think about the manager who has to give a big presentation and fails to practice ahead of the event, or people who procrastinate on work projects and wind up "not having enough time" to do a good job. In a 2010 HBR article, Jeffrey Pfeffer identified self-handicapping as one of three major barriers to building professional power: people avoid the pain of failure by never trying to build power in the first place."

David provides four steps to help overcome self-handicapping. At The Frontier Group we have institutionalized these steps into our practice.

Watch for the warning signs. As career coaches we are trained to observe and help our clients identify self-handicapping behaviors such as excuse making, procrastination or attention deficit. We then work with our clients to get them back on track and on course.

Use "what-ifs" and "if-onlys" to help you generate goals instead of excuses. As David points out "Research shows that the thinking people engage in during self-handicapping can just as easily be flipped to be motivational". We work with our clients to debrief a situation and address all of the key areas that did not work out (bad interview, career transition, etc.). We then take a positive focus on what corrective actions are needed to turn this same situation positive in the future. We turn a self defeat into a self affirmation.

Recognize and manage your negative emotions. Our team has extensive EQ (emotional intelligence) training that allows us to make our clients more self aware so that they can better manage their negative emotions. These negative emotions will hijack positive thinking and self control.

Go for mastery. As Susan David explains "Self-handicapping is most likely to kick in when we are trying to perform well in order to avoid negative feedback from external sources, such as criticism from colleagues. When we focus instead on developing mastery in a domain we care about, we tap into our inherent motivation to learn and grow. Recognize what matters to you, and brainstorm ideas to get yourself moving in that direction".

Beware of being a self-handicapper and allowing negative thinking to limit your thinking.