The 3-Step Process to to Kicking Bad Workplace Habits

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 your bad workplace habits holding you back from getting noticed at work? Want to know how to get rid of bad habits?

In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith explains that many professionals reach a plateau in their careers. This is because, in order to get out of middle management, you need to possess the right habits and skills.

Continue reading to learn how to get rid of your bad habits so you can get noticed at work.

Overcoming Your Bad Habits

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.

Here are the three steps to getting rid of bad workplace habits:

Step 1: Identify Your Bad Work Habits

The first step in overcoming your bad workplace habits is establishing exactly which habits you’ve adopted. The easiest way to do this is to solicit feedback from your colleagues. Approach the people you work with and ask them which elements of your behavior they would like to see improved. If many colleagues say that they’re unhappy with the same two or three behaviors, you’ll know these are the bad habits you’ve slipped into.

Solicited feedback works best if it’s requested confidentially by a third party. If you personally ask people for feedback on your behavior, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to answer honestly. They may be afraid of upsetting you with negative comments or fear retribution if you don’t like what they say. Therefore, they’re going to keep what they say fairly positive. Soliciting feedback confidentially through a third party takes away these reservations and encourages people to share their true opinions.

Who Should You Ask for Feedback?

Goldsmith argues that you should solicit “360-degree” feedback. This means asking people from all levels of your organization for feedback on your performance: your bosses, your peers, and your subordinates. 

When it comes to selecting precisely which of your peers, bosses, and subordinates to ask for feedback, each potential candidate needs to fit four requirements:

  1. They need to be willing to let go of the past. If people remain too focused on your past sins when giving their feedback, they’ll lean towards giving you harsh criticism rather than helpful tips for improvement.
  2. They need to be truthful. You’re not going to be able to fully improve upon your bad behaviors if you don’t get an honest picture of how bad they are in the first place.
  3. They need to agree to make the feedback helpful and supportive. You need helpful tips on how you can move forward, not people telling you that you’re a terrible person who’s failed in numerous ways.  
  4. They need to commit to improving an element of their behavior, too. This will create a bond between the two of you, as you’ll be going on a journey of self-improvement together. You’ll be able to offer mutual support and encouragement.

Deciding Which Habit to Change First

If you receive feedback that suggests you’ve got multiple bad workplace habits, don’t try to overcome them all at once. You’ll quickly become mentally exhausted and struggle to continue with the process of change. For this reason, it’s best to stick to fixing one behavior at a time. 

When choosing which bad habit to address first, pick the one that featured the most prominently in your feedback. For example, if 10% of the people you asked for feedback said you’re a bad listener, but 80% of them said you have an anger problem, tackle the anger issue first.

Step 2: Start the Process of Change

You’ve gathered feedback from your colleagues and identified which bad habit you’re going to tackle. Now, it’s time to begin the process of change: to start to cut this habit out of your life. In short, this involves replacing your bad behavior with its healthier alternative.

Start the process of change as soon as possible after deciding which bad behavior you’re going to address. Don’t fall into the trap of putting change off until a time when you’re “less busy.” As an already successful person, you’re always going to be busy. Bite the bullet and start to cut out your bad behavior now. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll make progress.

Obstacles to Change 

As you begin the process of changing your behavior, there are two obstacles you may face:

Obstacle #1: Feeling overwhelmed. The idea of changing your behavior may seem incredibly overwhelming, especially if you decide to immediately jump from one behavioral extreme to another—for instance, from being a rude jerk who makes destructive comments all the time to being a benevolent boss who’s incredibly polite and kind. 

To avoid feeling overwhelmed, start the process of change by shifting into behaving neutrally. Cut out your bad behavior without instantly trying to replace it with something “better.” For example, stop making destructive remarks to your colleagues without immediately switching to making lots of kind remarks. While “just” cutting out a bad behavior still takes a lot of work, it requires considerably less effort than ceasing a behavior and introducing a new one all at once. It’s therefore a much less overwhelming prospect.

Obstacle #2: Resisting change. Successful people often develop the superstitious delusion that their bad habit was a major factor in generating their professional success up to this point. They believe that if they cease their bad behavior, they’ll only experience failure in the future. Therefore, any calls for them to change their behavior are met with extreme hostility.

To overcome superstition and become willing to change, fully analyze how beneficial this bad behavior has actually been to you. List of all of the ways this you think behavior has helped you in the past, and all of the ways in which it’s harmed you—for instance, by giving you a bad reputation or ruining your working relationships. You’ll probably find that your bad behavior does much more harm than good, and you’ll hopefully feel more certain that you do need to change.

Step 3: Discuss Your Behavioral Change With Your Colleagues

Your next move is to frequently and repeatedly talk about your behavioral change. There are three types of conversation that you need to have with your colleagues:

Conversation #1: Apologize for your previous bad behavior. By saying sorry, you’ll show your colleagues that you know you’ve messed up and are willing to take responsibility for your actions. You may also give people the closure they need to move on from your past indiscretions and forgive you. You’ll have gained a small amount of ground in your mission to recover people’s goodwill and restore your reputation.

Conversation #2: Announce your intention to change. Frequently and consistently tell your colleagues exactly what you’re going to do to overcome your harmful habit and reassure them that you’re fully committed to changing. Doing so will further erode your colleagues’ negative perceptions of you. They’ll start to believe that you’re serious about making up for your past mistakes and really do intend to behave in a healthier way.

Conversation #3: Follow up and request “feedforward.” Approach your colleagues on a regular basis—say, once a month—to ask them how they think you’ve progressed in your attempts to change so far. Following up in this way gives you a way to measure your progress so far. It also helps to improve your colleagues’ opinions of you even more, as it forces them to think about how much better your behavior has become. 

While following up with your colleagues, you should ask them for two pieces of “feedforward.” Feedforward is practical advice on what you can do to improve your behavior even further moving forward. This type of advice is beneficial because it focuses on creating a positive future, not punishing yourself for the mistakes of the past. 

The 3-Step Process to to Kicking Bad Workplace Habits

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Marshall Goldsmith's "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full What Got You Here Won't Get You There summary :

  • 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

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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