Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Ten Common Beliefs That Could Be Holding You Back at Work

Do you feel held back in your career but can’t put a finger on why?

Key points

  • No matter how good someone may be at their job, everybody needs guidance, direction, and support to succeed.
  • If coworkers are receiving rewards that one is not getting, one should take that as a big reality check.
  • Solving a problem after it has festered is much more difficult than preventing the issue in the first place.

Do you feel held back in your career but aren’t sure why? Even if you are working hard and smart, if you have bought into these 10 common beliefs, you could miss out on valuable opportunities or project a less-than-professional image at work.

WavebreakmediaMicro / Adobe Stock
WavebreakmediaMicro / Adobe Stock

1. If you are a high performer, your boss shouldn’t tell you how to do your job.

No matter how good you may be at your job, everybody needs guidance, direction, and support to succeed. People need to make sure their work supports their company’s overall mission. Teams need to have concrete goals and be given specific benchmarks to meet those goals. Individuals need to be given concrete deadlines, clear timelines, and reasonable performance benchmarks. One’s boss is the person who needs to communicate these requirements to their direct reports and make sure they stay on track.

Think about professional athletes: Do they ever stop training or working with coaches? The only way to become a high performer and remain a high performer is to seek the guidance of a more experienced colleague—usually that person is your boss.

2. To be creative at work, you need to be left alone to do things your own way.

If you really want to be creative at work, the first thing you need to know is exactly what is and what is not up to you. Knowing the requirements of every task, responsibility, or project makes it clear which choices are yours to make and which are outside of your direct control. When the landscape over which you have control becomes clear, you are free to execute and own your creativity.

3. If someone else is getting special treatment, you should too.

Put it this way: Treating everybody the same, regardless of their performance, is totally unfair. If someone else is getting special treatment you desire or feel you deserve, figure out exactly what that person did to earn that special treatment.

What exactly do you need to do to earn the special treatment you want? If your coworkers are receiving rewards that you are not getting, take that as a big reality check. What you need is a fair and accurate assessment of your performance so you can continually improve and earn more of the rewards you want. Don’t be the squeaky wheel asking for more. Be the self-starting high performer who is earning more.

4. The path to success is catering to your boss’s style and preferences.

It is true that you need to align yourself as best you can with what works for each of your bosses. Some bosses prefer updates in writing; others prefer verbal reports. But you cannot afford to compromise the basic elements you need in order to succeed: clear and realistic expectations every step of the way, the necessary resources to complete your tasks, fair and accurate and honest feedback, and appropriate recognition and rewards for your work.

5. Making friends with your boss is smart workplace politics.

The smartest workplace politics is to keep your work relationships focused on the work. False friendships are a waste of time and real friendships may be wonderful in your personal life, but they are likely to complicate your situation at work. That is not to say that real friendships do not or should not occur in the workplace. Of course, they do.

Real friendships develop over time at work, including friendships with people who are your boss. If that’s your situation, then you’ll have to work hard to protect that friendship from the realities of the workplace. The best workplace politics is building authentic relationships by developing genuine rapport about the work you share.

6. Avoiding mistakes and problems until necessary is a good way to avoid hang-ups in productivity.

When you deal with mistakes and problems as they occur, you are much more likely to solve them while they are still small and manageable, before they get out of control. When you gloss over small mistakes without solving them, sometimes they drift away—but they are likely to recur. Small problems that recur incessantly cause difficult confrontations when coworkers or your boss finally explode in an outburst of frustration. Other times those recurring small problems become part of the fabric of your work.

But sometimes small mistakes and problems fester and grow and, over time, become big problems. Solving a problem after it has festered is much more difficult than preventing that problem in the first place or solving it while it was smaller. Plus, amid a problem, neither you nor your boss are going to be at your best.

If you include regular problem solving in your ongoing one-on-one dialogue with every single boss, nine out of 10 performance problems will be solved quickly and easily or will be avoided altogether.

7. No news is good news, but being coached on your performance is bad news.

Being coached on your performance is an opportunity to improve, and that is always good news. Good coaching is a constant banter of focus, improvement, and accountability: “What can I teach you right now? What can you improve right now?” A great coach helps you remember to be purposeful about every single detail to build your skills.

Look for the real teachers among your bosses and soak up their teachings. Assure them that you very much welcome candid feedback in detail, both positive and corrective. Try to turn every one-on-one conversation with your boss into a coaching session.

8. If your boss doesn’t like to read paperwork, you don’t need to keep track of your performance in writing.

You owe it to yourself and the organization to keep track of everything you do in writing. Most managers monitor employee performance only incidentally when they happen to observe the employee working; if they are presented with the employee’s work product; if there is a big win; or if there is a notable problem. They rarely document employee performance unless they are required to do so, leaving no written track record other than those bottom-line reports that tell so little about the day-to-day actions of each employee. Whether or not your boss keeps track of your day-to-day performance in writing, you should.

9. If you are not a people person, you’ll have a hard time getting ahead in the workplace.

Whether or not you are a people person, learn and practice a service mindset, and you will be everybody’s go-to person. Some people are unusually charismatic, observant, receptive, quick-witted, articulate, engaging, energetic, and likeable. That does not get you anywhere near as far as being the person who is always focused on what you have to offer others.

10. Some bosses are just too busy to meet with you.

No matter how busy your boss may be, your boss does not have time to not meet with you on a regular basis. When your boss doesn’t spend time one-on-one with you, things go wrong—sometimes very wrong. That’s because expectations often remain unclear, misunderstandings occur, you don’t get the resources you need, you don’t receive regular feedback to guide you, and even if you succeed against all odds, you probably won’t get the credit you deserve.

If you push your boss to put the management time where it belongs—up front before anything goes right, wrong, or average—things will go much better. If you make sure the time your boss spends with you is effective and pays off in productivity, you will gain a reputation for making good use of management time.

More from Bruce Tulgan, JD
More from Psychology Today