Are You Sabotaging Yourself at Work? Here's How to Tell

Many smart and competent people don’t achieve what they want at work because they undermine themselves with defensive, limiting or self-destructive thoughts and behaviors.  These sabotaging thoughts and behaviors not only hold us back, they also undermine our image in the eyes of others, damaging our prospects for success.

Years ago, in a commencement speech, the comedian Jim Carrey touchingly outlined what holds most of us back from achieving what we desire. He said: “ You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about the pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based on either love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it.”

While we may sabotage ourselves at work, conversely, we can choose to change and to manage those self-limiting behaviors.  When we recognize and stop this magical thinking and focus on choosing from strength, we think and act from a place of empowerment and confidence.  

These common thoughts and behaviors limit us at work. To determine how much you are getting in the way of your own success, as you read each, examine your thoughts and behaviors at work. For every sabotaging tendency you recognize in yourself, check the ballot box.  If you have three or more of these as habits of thought or action, you have work to do!

You are sabotaging yourself at work when you...

✓ Dwell in negative space.

People frequently get what they expect, and attract what they dwell on. Stop blaming others for your situation or feelings; while other people can influence your emotions, they can’t force you to feel or do anything. Stop wasting time complaining, that just gives unpleasant events power over your life. Focus on solutions, rather than dwelling on problems.  Stop focusing on what is bad about your situation versus what is good; what is not possible versus what is. Stop counting the bad things that have happened to you, not your successes. Choose to live in the positive space.

✓ Wait to be rescued.

This has also been called the “Cinderella complex,” in which we wait to be chosen instead of taking an active role in our success. Instead of relying on one successful or powerful person to support and recognize you, build a network of supporters and advisers. Stop thinking that someone else will “save” you; save yourself.

✓ Keep your thoughts to yourself.

We often censor our thoughts and ideas, thinking it is better to be silent than to say the wrong thing. But, if you never take the shot, you can’t score the goal. When you keep your new ideas to yourself, avoid asking clarifying questions, or accept poor policies, you give away your power. Do be sure that your contribution is informed and has a positive goal, isn’t based on pure emotion or sabotaging others.  On the other hand…nobody likes a know it all either.

✓ Believe that you will be rewarded for hard work and seniority.

Slaving away every day isn’t what leads to success. Just being there isn’t enough; you need to show up motivated and in charge of your own future. Get a clear idea of your goals and a plan for how to get there. You also need to be prepared to ask for what you want and think you deserve.

✓ Work too hard.

It doesn’t make you look good to try to do everything yourself or to appear to always be overworked.  Nor do you want to be indispensible for the wrong reasons – like taking on all the low level mind numbing things no one else will do.  It’s OK to have help. And, talent is actually more impressive than being a grinder.  

✓ Are a people pleaser.

People pleasers’ actions are driven by a need for approval. This makes them vulnerable to aggressive or bullying co-workers. People pleasers say, “yes” to things that they don’t want to do or aren’t comfortable with because they don’t want to disappoint; they take care of others at the expense of themselves. But they never feel “good enough” because they can’t please everyone. The first step to recovery is recognition.

✓ Listen to your gremlins.

We all have limiting thoughts and assumptions that subconsciously sabotage our progress. The gremlins we developed in childhood speak to us through critical, discouraging thoughts known as the “critical inner voice;" thoughts that hold us back. The voice encourages us to give in to bad habits or avoid going after what we want. It leads us to think in terms of shoulds or shouldn’ts, cans or cant’s. When those gremlins start talking, consciously switch your thoughts to the positive.

✓ Lack confidence.

Many of us secretly feel inferior, like we don’t deserve success or like an imposter when we do get recognition. Fear of failure or rejection can eat away at our confidence. The problem is that when you lack confidence, it shows. The good news is that even acting confident will increase your confidence. Take on the mannerisms and body language of the fulfilled and confident person—and you will become more confident and fulfilled.

✓ Hide your light under a bushel.  

No one admires the braggart, the co-worker who shamelessly self-promotes or the person who can’t talk about or focus on anyone else.  At the same time, being shy and retreating to the shadows won’t help you get ahead. A certain level of self-promotion (or branding as they call it these days) is necessary.  Practice talking about your accomplishments in a low-key way that feels natural; don’t be afraid to say what your strengths are.

✓ Let your emotions rule.

Every office has a drama queen—someone who can’t handle bad news or a bad day and whose emotions get away from them. Don’t let it be you. Knowing how to recover gracefully from a bad day, a mistake or a failure is a great skill to have. Show people that you learn from experience and that you are in control of your reactions. No sulking

✓ Lack insight into yourself or others.

Emotionally intelligent people are self-aware and also understand how others think and feel.  Emotional intelligence is a success marker in the workplace. On the other hand, being blind to yourself or others is a major cause of career failure.  Make it a goal to learn about and examine human behavior; know what drives people, what they need and what they value. Be willing to flex your own style to meet others more than halfway.

✓ Ignore how things are done.

A lot of people take pride in not being “political”—probably too many. Just as insight into people is important, an understanding of the corporate culture and how things work will be a key part of your success. How you ask and how you suggest are important. Observe people whose ideas get accepted and who are influential; how do they operate? There’s a reason for the saying “You can’t fight city hall.”


The opposite of sabotaging yourself is empowering yourself. Empowerment isn’t something you need to wait to have granted; it is something you can do for yourself. The program for this year’s Administrative Professionals Conference is built around the skills, mindset and knowledge you need to step up your game. To see the dozens of meaty sessions and inspiring presentations, click here.