5 (Bad) Habits that Hold You Back from the Top

In Marshall Goldsmith’s classic, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” America’s number one ranked executive coach writes about how the very characteristic that got you where you are may exactly be the very thing that is holding you back from going from good to great.

On the back cover of the book, it writes: “Your hard work is paying off. You are doing well in your field. But there is something standing between you and the next level of achievement. That something may just be one of your annoying habits. Perhaps one small flaw – a behavior you barely even recognize – is the only thing that’s keeping you from where you want to be.”

Goldsmith outlines 20 habits that successful people commit that hold them back from the top. I selected my favorite 5 and summarized key ideas here.


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Habit No. 1: Winning Too Much

This is the most common behavioral problem in successful people. There’s a fine line between being competitive and over-competitive. There are appropriate times when winning matters. On the other hand, winning when no one’s counting is alarming. Winning too much underlies virtually every other behavioral problem. For instance, if we argue too much, it’s because we want our view to prevail. If we put down other people, it’s our stealthy way of positioning them beneath us. If we ignore people, again it’s about winning – by making them fade away.

Habit No. 2: Adding Too Much Value

Successful people struggle to listen to others when something they know and behaviors led them this far. The higher up you go in the leadership ladder, the more you need to make other people winning and not make it about winning yourself. This means closely monitoring how you encourage others. If you find yourself saying, “Great idea,” then dropping the other shoe with a “but” or “however,” try cutting your response off at “idea.” Even better, take a breath before you speak and ask yourself if what you’re about to say is actually worth it.

Habit No. 3: Passing Judgment

There’s an appropriate time to offer your opinion in the typical give-and-take of discussions. But it’s not appropriate to pass judgment when we specifically ask people to voice their opinions about us.

Try this: For one week treat every idea that comes your way from another person with complete neutrality. Don’t take sides. Don’t express an opinion. If you find yourself incapable of just saying “Thank you,” make it an innocuous “Thanks, I hadn’t considered that” or “Thanks, you’ve given me something to think about. You will significantly reduce the number of pointless arguments at work or home.

Habit No. 4: Making Destructive Comments

You might think of those cutting sarcastic comments that run the gamut from a thoughtless jab in a meeting to comments about how someone looks – “Nice tie” (with a smirk).

Here’s a rule of them before speaking:

  1. Will this comment help our customers?
  2. Will this comment help our company?
  3. Will this comment help the person I’m talking to?
  4. Will this comment help the person I’m talking about?

Habit No. 5: Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”

When you start a sentence with any of these words, no matter how friendly your tone, the message to the other person is : You are wrong.

Stop trying to defend your position and start monitoring how many times you begin remarks with those three words. Pay special attention to times when you use these words in a sentence: “That’s true, however…” (meaning: You don’t thin kit’s true) or the very common opener, “Yes, but…” (meaning: Prepare to be contradicted)

If you’d like to go deeper, here’s a full talk from Marshall Goldsmith at USD Business School.