7 Psychological Traps That Can Undermine Your Success

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By Shana Lebowitz

There are plenty of external factors that can hold you back from success at work — from a dismal economy to backstabbing coworkers.

But when it comes to professional achievement, you can easily be your own worst enemy. By keeping quiet in meetings when you've got a different opinion or toiling over a project report past midnight, you may actually be acting against your own interest.

Here, we've listed seven ways people sabotage their own career success, often without even realizing it.1. Conforming to the majority opinion
In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a brilliant study that found people tended to agree with the majority, even when it was obvious the majority was wrong.

In the experiment, participants were asked to indicate which of three lines was longest. They were surrounded by confederates who all reported that one of the shorter lines was longer. Sure enough, most participants agreed with the confederates.

The lesson here is to be wary of the very human tendency to conform to the group's opinion. When you're in a meeting at work and it seems like most people have got the wrong answer to a problem, consider voicing your opinion instead of assuming you must be delusional.

2. Believing negative stereotypes
Stereotype threat occurs when people think about negative associations with their gender or race and subsequently perform worse on whatever task they're working on.

In the workplace, research suggests that managers who feel subject to racial stereotypes may be less likely to seek feedback, which can hurt their achievement in the long run. Similarly, women primed to think about negative gender stereotypes performed worse in negotiations than women who weren't primed.

To be fair, this isn't just an illusion — in some cases, employees may very well be the victims of stereotypes. Researchers say one way to combat the harmful effects of stereotype threat is for leaders to teach negatively stereotyped employees to actively think about their most valuable qualities.

3. Needing to produce flawless work
Perfectionism might sound like a positive attribute — but in reality, it can sabotage your chances of success. According to Alice Boyes, Ph.D., perfectionists often use up all their willpower until they're psychologically and emotionally exhausted. Then it's hard for them to continue working on a task.

If you notice perfectionistic tendencies in yourself, Boyes suggests coming up with specific warning signs that you've persisted too long on something and it's time to take a break.

4. Feeling like you're an impostor
Researchers say 70% of people will experience "impostor syndrome" at least once in their lives. Basically, it's when you feel like your achievements are undeserved and you'll one day be revealed as a fraud.

As a result, you may be so afraid of failure that you experience tremendous anxiety when tackling an achievement-related task.

One way to conquer impostor syndrome is to consult your mentors and let them know how you feel. They'll likely assure you that your experience is normal — and completely irrational.

5. Fearing success
Psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term "Jonah complex" to describe the fear of achieving your full potential. It can happen when you're starting a new career or professional position and it can be just as harmful as the fear of failure.

Maybe you fear the sense of responsibility that will accompany your new role; or maybe you simply can't imagine yourself as someone powerful.

It's important to try to figure out where this fear is coming from — for example, maybe a friend or family member told you that you weren't talented. Then challenge those messages by thinking rationally about all you've achieved so far.

6. Burying your head in the sand
The "ostrich effect" occurs when you avoid seeking information about progress toward your goals, largely out of fear that you'll be disappointed. For example, maybe you've been putting off checking your sales numbers this month because you have a feeling you haven't met expectations.

Unfortunately, the only way to get back on track is to figure out how far off the track you've fallen. If you're truly terrified of checking your progress, consider asking a colleague to give you regular feedback, so you don't have to muster up the willpower to do it yourself.

7. Procrastination
Procrastination isn't just an extreme case of laziness. In fact, it often stems from feelings of hostility or anger.

For instance, The Harvard Business Review cites an example of a computer scientist who was frustrated when he didn't get promoted. Instead of asking for feedback on his performance, he started procrastinating on projects — and was subsequently passed over for a promotion the following year.

To combat anger-related procrastination, it helps to learn to identify your emotional responses before they spiral out of control. Then you can think about a response that's more effective than putting off your work.
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