No career advancement? See the enemy

When I ran a first draft of this column past a woman I work with she said, “True, but it only applies to men – we don’t think like that.” Maybe she’s right.

Ladies, if you don’t think like this, my apologies in advance for wasting your time. Gentlemen, as far as we’re concerned, I have (as Walt Kelly’s Pogo said in the ’50s) seen the enemy, and he is us.

My Grandfather was a smart man. “Kenny,” he’d say, “it seems to me that if one person you work with thinks you’re an idiot, they could be wrong.” He’d pause, then he’d continue, “On the other hand, if seven people you work with think you’re an idiot, you’re probably an idiot.”

When I hear people complaining about their lack of progress up the corporate ladder, how their management is a bunch of dummies conspiring against their career aspirations, how no one really understands or appreciates the work they do, I can hear his voice in my ears.

I think he was right: we’re held back more by our own inadequacies and subsequent self-delusion (“How come they can’t see that I’m management material?”) than we are by the inability of others to recognize how truly great we are.

Gentlemen, we’re all self-delusional to an extent, and we’d do well to recognize that it’s a self-defence mechanism (“It can’t possibly be my fault”) that doesn’t serve us well. And we make the matter worse by letting our delusions masquerade as self-confidence.

Example: our tendency to blame management for any outcome we’d don’t like or agree with. “If I ran the show, we’d never get into this kind of mess.” Do we really believe that? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: generally speaking, management doesn’t get to be management by being stupid, and we do ourselves a considerable disservice by thinking that their elevated position is simply dumb luck.

Our inability to see our own errors and limitations sure doesn’t help. Ask yourself the question: From the perspective of your colleagues, from the perspective of your boss, what is it that’s holding you back in your career? What do you think they’d really say if they were given truth serum?

Listen to the answer like your life depends on it, because to an extent it does.

Listen and don’t defend yourself, and don’t half listen while you fill your mind up with what you’re going to say in response. A smart lady who worked for me once said that in every conversation with a man, she worked hard to get her message across in the first 30 seconds because, “After that, his brain occupies itself entirely with thinking about what’s he’s gonna say as soon as he gets a chance, and he stops listening to me.”

If you begin to see a pattern in the responses, if seven people say the same thing (“You don’t seem to listen to what other people have to say” or “You appear to driving your own agenda at the expense of everyone else’s” or “You’re not getting your ideas across effectively” or “You’re so cynical about the organization that it affects everyone around you”), you basically have two choices: deny what you’ve heard (“They’re all crazy, so I’m not going to change a damn thing”), or agree that Granddad was right, and take the path of the reformed addict: knowing that the first step to a solution is acknowledging that you have a problem.

Once acknowledged, the heavy lifting is in working the solution.

Imagine the power of this exchange in your next performance review with your boss: “I want to talk about what’s been holding me back in my career, and I think the answer is me. I’ve been thinking hard, and I’ve been asking a lot of people – here’s what I think is holding me back, and here’s what I’m thinking about doing about it.”

The career implications? If yours is at a standstill, either acknowledge that you’re not going to change and you’re going to stay right where you are, or acknowledge that you’ve got something to work on (after all, seven people said so), and attack.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at