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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What is the book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There about? What are the 21 bad habits of successful people?
In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith outlines the 21 bad habits that many successful people possess that prevent them from moving up the career ladder. He offers advice on how to replace those habits with more positive ones.
Here is a brief overview of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.
Moving Past a Career Plateau
Many professionals get stuck at a certain level of success. For instance, they manage to climb to a middle-management position at their organization, but always get passed over for promotion to the executive level.
Author and business coach Marshall Goldsmith believes that many professionals’ careers stall in this way because they slip into bad behavioral habits. In other words, they start to treat their colleagues poorly. For instance, they may become so self-important that they refuse to listen to anyone else’s ideas, instead dismissing them outright.
Ultimately, to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, you need to have good people skills. If you’re constantly irritating everyone around you with your bad behavior, your superiors won’t have confidence in your interpersonal skills. Therefore, you won’t get picked for top-flight roles.
In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Goldsmith explains how you can reach your full potential by eliminating 21 harmful work behaviors. He argues that while engaging in these behaviors may not have stopped you from getting “here”—to your current level of success—they won’t get you “there”—to the heights of success that you ultimately aspire to.
The Bad Habits of Successful People
(Shortform note: We’ve split the 21 habits into five categories to clarify themes and make the habits easier to recall.)
Flaunting Your Apparent Superiority
These five habits are rooted in not only believing that you’re “better” than all of your colleagues, but also feeling the need to demonstrate your apparent superiority at every opportunity.
Bad Habit #1: Constantly Needing to Win. This habit becomes problematic when you try to “win” at things that don’t really matter—for example, when you need to win an argument with a colleague about something as trivial as which coffee brand is best. This combative attitude will quickly irritate and alienate your coworkers.
The Healthier Behavior: Evaluate whether “winning” a certain situation will provide any long-term benefits to you or your company. If it won’t, consider whether pursuing this win is really worth the damage you may do to your reputation.
Bad Habit #2: Compulsively “Adding Value” to People’s Ideas. This means trying to improve every idea that’s presented to you because you’re certain you know a better way forward. It’s a sure-fire way to make the person who presented the idea feel inferior—like they’re not good enough to come up with strong ideas on their own.
The Healthier Behavior: Instead of trying to add value, simply thank people for their ideas or suggestions and move on.
Bad Habit #3: Passing Judgment on People’s Ideas and Opinions. Constantly passing either positive or negative judgment on your colleagues’ ideas makes them feel like you’re always grading them on the quality of their input. This puts them under a lot of pressure.
The Healthier Behavior: When people make suggestions or give their opinions, don’t pass either a negative or positive judgment. Just thank the person for their input.
Bad Habit #4: Overusing the Words “No,” “But,” and “However.” Responding to someone’s idea with these words sends them the message, “You’re wrong, I’m right, and I’m about to tell you why.” When you tell people they’re wrong, their first instinct is to fight back and prove they’re right. A bitter argument ensues, which isn’t conducive to a healthy working environment.
The Healthier Behavior: Consider whether the criticism or challenge you want to make is really important 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 often manifests when someone tries to tell you something you’ve heard before. You may reply, “I already knew that” or “I’m way ahead of you,” the implication being “I had this idea before you did, meaning I’m smarter than you.” This belittles the other person and makes you seem arrogant.
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.
Expressing Negativity and Withholding Positivity
The next five bad habits all involve either expressing negativity (for example, through anger or criticism) or withholding positivity (for instance, by refusing to praise people).
Bad Habit #6: Making Harmful or Hurtful Comments—for example, telling someone who’s made a sub-par suggestion in a meeting that they’re a waste of space. Making such comments will give you a reputation for being unkind and turn many people against you.
The Healthier Behavior: Keep your hurtful comments to yourself. Remember that being rude to a slacking employee won’t improve their performance—it’ll just make you look like a jerk.
Bad Habit #7: Expressing Anger Towards Others. If you regularly get angry at your colleagues, people will see you as volatile and out of control. You’ll appear too emotionally fragile to be trusted with further responsibilities.
The Healthier Behavior: Quickly remove yourself from any situations that start to make you angry. If that’s not possible, take deep breaths and pause before you react.
Bad Habit #8: Shooting the Messenger. Getting angry at the person who has to tell you something negative, such as bad news, is a sure-fire way to gain a reputation for being an unjust leader. After all, you’re directing your rage at someone who isn’t at fault. The messenger didn’t create the bad situation—they’re just telling you about it.
The Healthier Behavior: When someone brings you bad news or criticism, simply thank them for telling you and move on. If you’re too upset or angry to do that, just say nothing at all.
Bad Habit #9: Expressing Relentless Negativity—for instance, whenever someone presents you with an idea, immediately listing all the reasons why it won’t work. Unless you temper critical comments with positive ones, people are going to get sick of you and your negativity.
The Healthier Behavior: Stop before you express your negativity and consider whether it’s actually necessary. If you conclude it’s absolutely imperative to say something negative, temper your criticism with positive comments.
Bad Habit #10: Refusing to Praise or Recognize People. Failing to recognize your colleagues for their hard work sows resentment. You’re going to develop a reputation as an unjust and ungrateful leader who’s unwilling to give others the credit they deserve.
The Healthier Behavior: Set time aside every week to consider your team’s recent achievements and pass on praise accordingly.
These five bad habits all relate to avoiding accountability: in other words, making excuses for your poor behavior and refusing to take responsibility for your actions.
Bad Habit #11: Blaming Others for Your Mistakes—for example, trying to blame the loss of a sale on a colleague, even though you were in charge of that account. Blaming others for your missteps loses you the respect of your colleagues. You’ll seem disloyal, devious, and willing to sacrifice others for your own gain.
The Healthier Behavior: Fully accept the blame for things that are your fault and tell your team members that you’re doing so. Show them that you’re willing to be accountable for your actions.
Bad Habit #12: Blaming Your Past Struggles for Your Current Bad Behavior. While your colleagues may be sympathetic towards your past struggles, they’ll still question why you think it’s appropriate to take them out on other people in the form of bad behavior. If you continue to do so, they’ll lose respect for you.
The Healthier Behavior: Try to develop a healthier relationship with your past and lessen its impact on your present behavior. For instance, you could talk to a therapist about what you’ve been through and how you can move past it.
Bad Habit #13: Making Your Personality the Excuse for Your Bad Behavior. Some people genuinely believe that their poor behavior is an unshakeable part of their personality. However, in most cases, this isn’t true. It is possible to unlearn your bad habits, and if you keep claiming that you can’t, people are going to lose respect for you.
The Healthier Behavior: Consider whether you’re really unable to change your bad behavior, or if you’re just unwilling to try. If the latter is the case, make a commitment to changing. It won’t be easy, but people will respect you for it.
Bad Habit #14: Refusing to Change Under the Guise of “Authenticity.” Some professionals believe that their harmful habits should be celebrated, not changed, because those habits are a part of their “authentic self.” This attitude selfishly disregards the behavior’s impact on other people and consequently harms the professional’s reputation.
The Healthier Behavior: Remember that your feelings aren’t the only ones that matter. Ask yourself, “Is prioritizing feeling authentic worth the damage that I’m currently doing to both other people and my own reputation?”
Bad Habit #15: Never Apologizing. Many professionals find saying sorry painful and humiliating, because they think it makes them look weak. However, if you don’t apologize for your wrongdoings, the people who’ve suffered because of your actions will become bitter. You’ll gain a reputation for being callous, unfeeling, and arrogant.
The Healthier Behavior: When you’ve done something wrong, apologize to the person or people affected by your behavior. Don’t let your pride get in the way of making amends.
Refusing to Express Gratitude or Listen to Others
Goldsmith identifies the next two bad habits, not saying thank you and refusing to listen to other people, as crucial elements of becoming a good colleague and leader.
Bad Habit #16: Not Saying Thank You. Many leaders avoid expressing gratitude because they see it as a form of weakness. They don’t like acknowledging that they sometimes need other people’s help. However, when you fail to thank others, you appear arrogant and unappreciative.
The Healthier Behavior: Swallow your pride and say thank you whenever people help you.
Bad Habit #17: Refusing to Listen to Other People. Often, successful people feel so confident in their abilities that they think listening to others is a waste of time. Why should they sit around listening to ideas they’ve probably already thought of? However, failing to listen destroys the speaker’s confidence, makes them feel unimportant, and makes them resent you.
The Healthier Behavior: Respectfully listen to any ideas that people put forward to you.
Miscellaneous Bad Behaviors
The final four habits don’t really fit into any of the above categories. However, they still negatively impact the people around you and are therefore important to eradicate.
Bad Habit #18: Withholding Information From Your Colleagues. People often do this accidentally—they’re so busy that they forget to pass on important information to their coworkers. However, whether it’s accidental or not, withholding information makes people distrust you. They start to wonder what else you’re hiding from them.
The Healthier Behavior: Take a set amount of time each day to share information with the people who need to know it, either by email, over the phone, or in person.
Bad Habit #19: Taking Undeserved Credit for Other People’s Successes. When you claim that you were responsible for an achievement that you actually had very little part in, you generate rage and bitterness on the part of the person whose credit you’ve stolen. If they tell others about what you’ve done, your reputation will undoubtedly suffer.
The Healthier Behavior: When you’re congratulated for an achievement, consider how others might have contributed to your success. If someone else did help you, publicly credit them.
Bad Habit #20: Engaging in Favoritism. Favoritism is treating some of your team members better than others, not because they’re performing better, but because you like them more. It breeds resentment among the members of your team who work hard and yet see few rewards simply because you don’t like them that much.
The Healthier Behavior: When you find yourself tempted to favor a particular team member, question whether, based on their performance, this person actually deserves a reward. If not, refrain from giving them one.
Bad Habit #21: Becoming Obsessed With Achieving Goals. Becoming too focused on pursuing your goals can lead to ruthlessness: feeling that you need to meet your goals, no matter how much your actions harm other people. Ultimately, being ruthless will gain you a reputation for being a cold-hearted backstabber who’s unpleasant to work with.
The Healthier Behavior: Constantly reflect on the behavior that’s moving you closer to achieving your goals. Consider whether it’s having any negative consequences. If it is, apologize to anyone you’ve harmed and modify your behavior.
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- Why many middle managers find it hard to move up the corporate ladder
- The 21 harmful workplace behaviors keeping you from success
- How becoming too goal-oriented can actually harm your career