Stop Feeling Superior at Work: 5 Habits to Kick

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you or your manager guilty of feeling superior at work? How can you recognize these bad habits and work to improve them?

Many managers accidentally slip into harmful habits without even realizing it. A common trend among these habits is the tendency to flaunt their superiority to their colleagues. Luckily, these bad habits can be changed if the perpetrator is willing to accept their flaws and work towards change.

Here are the top five superiority habits and how to fix them.

Flaunting Your Apparent Superiority

In this section, we’re going to explore the 5 bad habits that successful people often slip into. These habits aren’t deep personality flaws that would take extensive psychiatry to change. Instead, they’re the everyday annoying traits that many successful people—especially those in leadership positions—tend to develop. 

Most of these bad behaviors harm others at our own expense. Some professionals wouldn’t characterize harming others for personal gain as a bad thing. Instead, they might see these bad habits as a useful way to gain an advantage over their rivals. However, Goldsmith argues that the key to becoming successful isn’t pushing other people down on your way to the top. Instead, it’s gaining allies who will back you and help to lift you up to further success. Therefore, it’s important to overcome these harmful behaviors.

We’re going to look at bad habits that fall under the category of feeling superior and flaunting it: in other words, not only believing that you’re “better” than all of your colleagues, but feeling the need to demonstrate how much better you are at every opportunity. 

Bad Habit #1: Constantly Needing to Win

In the context of this bad habit, “winning” could mean a lot of things. For instance, it could mean being right about something. It could mean your idea being selected over a colleague’s. Or it could mean meeting a goal quicker than your peers.

Chasing “wins” isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, having healthy competition with your colleagues can drive you to get great results. For instance, it might push you to close a lot of deals, or bring on as many prestigious new clients as possible, just to “beat” your coworkers. Ultimately, these “wins” are beneficial to you and your employer.

However, the need to win becomes a problem when you make everything into a competition and strive to “win” at things that don’t really matter. For example, unhealthy winning is needing to be right whenever you talk to your peers, even if the conversation is about something trivial like which brand of coffee is best. It’s also gloating about these small, trivial wins at every given opportunity, just to remind the people around you that you “beat” them.

This attitude is quickly going to irritate and alienate your colleagues. It suggests you believe your need to come out on top is more important than the feelings of the team. It also suggests that you relish making other people feel “lesser.” Neither of these perceptions is going to earn you much respect.

The Healthier Behavior: Evaluate whether “winning” a certain situation will actually provide any long-term benefits to you or your company. Is this “win” actually about making tangible progress, such as winning a sale or improving the quality of a project, or is it just about boosting your ego? If the latter, is this temporary ego boost worth the lasting damage you may do to your colleagues’ confidence and your reputation? Probably not.

Bad Habit #2: Compulsively ‘Adding Value’ to People’s Ideas

“Adding value” means trying to improve someone else’s idea—for instance, responding to every suggestion that’s presented to you with “That’s a great idea, but here’s how to do it better,” or “I think this would be improved if…”

Successful people are often tempted to do this because they’re arrogant. They believe that since they’re so successful, they must be smarter than everyone else around them. Therefore, they must be capable of improving every idea presented to them by their “lesser” colleagues. 

These successful people often believe they’re being helpful. They’re only trying to share their superior knowledge and ideas with other people—what’s wrong with that? What they don’t realize is that “adding value” only demoralizes the person who originally presented the idea. It makes them feel they’re not good enough to come up with ideas without needing extra help. It also makes them resent the person who’s made them feel so inadequate. 

Likewise, “adding value” makes the person who came up with the idea feel they’ve lost ownership of it. It’s not just their idea anymore—it contains someone else’s thoughts, too. This is demotivating. People would much rather work on an idea entirely their own, rather than pursue one that’s been hijacked and added to by someone else. 

The Healthier Behavior: Before you try to “add value” to an idea, evaluate whether doing so is actually worth it. Is what you’re about to suggest so vitally important that it justifies damaging someone’s confidence? Likewise, is showing off how smart and full of good ideas you are worth making people resent you? Arguably, it’s not. Instead of trying to add value, simply thank people for their suggestions and move on. You’ll protect both their feelings and your reputation.

Bad Habit #3: Passing Judgment on People’s Ideas and Opinions

Have you ever asked for your team’s ideas on a certain subject, and then passed judgment on every response—for instance, telling one person “great idea,” and another “that idea needs work”? Many leaders believe passing judgment on ideas and opinions is a positive thing. It gives some of their team members encouragement and others the push they need to improve. 

However, in the long run, passing judgment—even when that judgment is positive—leads to a tense and uncomfortable working atmosphere. Your team members begin to believe that every time they make a suggestion or give an opinion, they’re going to be graded on it. This puts a lot of pressure on them to make “good” suggestions all the time. They feel that if they don’t, they’re going to be called out for it—a humiliating prospect. 

Passing judgment may even make your team members reluctant to suggest things at all for fear of being “graded” harshly. Their confidence will fall, their stress levels will rise, and they may become afraid of you. 

The Healthier Behavior: When people make suggestions or give their opinions to you, don’t pass either a negative or positive judgment. Just thank the person for their input and move on. Doing so will protect the self-confidence of the person you’re talking to and will make you seem like a kinder, less judgmental person.

Bad Habit #4: Overusing the Words ‘No,’ ‘But,’ and ‘However’

Overusing the words “no,” “but,” and “however” involves constantly challenging the validity of people’s ideas and suggestions. For example, it’s listening to one of your team members outlining a new possible sales strategy and responding with, “That’s a great idea, but…” or “What you’re saying makes sense. However…” 

This habit breeds conflict. If you respond to someone’s suggestion with a “no,” a “but,” or a “however,” you send them the message, “You’re wrong, I’m right, and I’m about to tell you why.” When people are told they’re wrong, their first instinct is to fight back: to demonstrate that actually, they’re the one in the right. More often than not, an argument over who is correct ensues, which isn’t conducive to a healthy and positive working environment.

The Healthier Behavior: Learn to hold your tongue. Consider whether the criticism or challenge you want to make is important or justified enough to risk starting an argument. If it’s not, keep it to yourself.

Bad Habit #5: Letting People Know How Smart You Are

This habit is rooted in the desire to always seem like you’re the cleverest person in the room. Some successful people genuinely believe in their own intellectual superiority. They think that to get as far as they have, they must be smarter than everyone else. Others try to make themselves look clever because they feel insecure. 

People frequently slip into this habit when someone presents them with an idea that they’ve heard or thought about before. In such situations, the person will reply, “I already knew that,” “I’m way ahead of you,” or maybe even, “Why would you bother telling me that?” All of these phrases imply: “I had this amazing idea before you did, which means I’m smarter than you.”

Making your prior knowledge of an idea clear in this way may well make you look smart. However, it’ll also make you look callous, arrogant, and rude. In the process of trying to make yourself look clever, you’ve put down the person you’re talking to and tried to make them feel stupid. Nobody is going to respect you for that.

The Healthier Behavior: If someone tells you something you’ve heard before, just say thank you and move on. There’s no need to humiliate them by making your prior knowledge clear. Doing so may give you a temporary ego boost, but it’s only going to harm your reputation and the other person’s confidence.

Stop Feeling Superior at Work: 5 Habits to Kick

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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