By Robin Madell
There's a lot you can do to help gradually advance your career. There are also plenty of actions you can take to swiftly derail it. Avoiding the trouble spots can be just as important (if not more so) than hitting the sweet spots on your way up the ladder.
Executive coach Tim Toterhi puts it this way: "While it's rare that one mistake could kill a career, there are a few things that could get you donated back to the industry."
The three biggest mistakes you can make on the job come from the misuse or misunderstanding of three key factors in the workplace: technology, corporate culture and office politics:
Taking tech too far. While many around you may seem to be doing the opposite, bringing discretion and common sense to your social media approach can save your career reputation and your job. When it comes to work, it's always a bad move to post any negative opinions about people you know and places you go or have been – particularly current or past colleagues and companies.
"Office gossip is always a bad idea, but posting anything like that online is an even worse idea," says John Turner, CEO of UsersThink. "The ease and convenience of social media is always a tempting way to vent, but information shared on such platforms has an odd way of getting out to a larger audience, no matter the settings or promises of privacy." Turner suggests that when in doubt, avoid posting such thoughts online, in any format, at any time. Assume there's no expiration date on what you share. "You never know when a post from years ago could come back to haunt you," Turner says.
Erik Dochtermann, co-founder and CEO of creative advertising agency MODCo Group, advises aspiring career climbers to remember that they are never off the clock – either online or outside the office. Because today's tech tools and toys make it simple to widely publicize anything that happens seconds after the fact, the way you behave outside of work matters, particularly if you attend client or industry events.
"In the age of social media, nothing goes unnoticed (and could be recorded and forwarded), so behave respectfully," Dochtermann says. "If you are on the career path, you can't afford to get rip-roaring drunk, blast your superiors, complain about clients or satirize your co-workers."
Not respecting workplace culture. You might think that if you're good at your job, you can put your head down and do your work without worrying about what's happening around you. But having a solid read on your office environment and basing your actions on that awareness is another important part of your job. In fact, being a poor fit within a company's culture can ultimately end in your dismissal.
"By far the greatest mistake anyone can make is to think that technical expertise or job performance in itself can ever trump a solid understanding of the social and hierarchical nature of the workplace," says Margaret J. King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis. "Every group setting has a hierarchy of power and interrelated networks. The first order of business is to psych out this order, then decide where you and your skills fit into it."
Culture exists to help create business results from the cohesion created by shared norms in areas such as attire, effective communication and performance standards. "Deviating too much for too long – especially while not being an overall high performer – is to create a stigma for yourself and a stain on the group's culture," says Todd Dewett, author and leadership and workplace expert. "In higher performing groups, significant deviations are not tolerated for long."
On a related note, Dewett says that overly simplistic, black-and-white perspectives that don't respect a diversity of opinion should also be avoided. "People who are too rigid upset team chemistry and negatively affect culture," he says.
Playing politics the wrong way – or not at all.Office politics are among the most difficult aspects of jobs in every industry. Yet while few people enjoy political maneuverings with colleagues, politics are a reality that can't be ignored if you care about your career.
"Failing to understand alliances, agendas, personalities and culture will increase the likelihood you misstep and begin creating enemies, whether out of jealousy or just plain dislike," says Frank Niles, co-founder and managing partner of Scholar Executive Group.
Some workplace experts, like Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at the D'Amore McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, suggest resisting office politics as much as possible. "Do not listen to the office gossip, and do not participate in spreading gossip," she says. "Office politics can be a black hole that wastes a lot of time and distracts you from what you need to do to be successful."
Yet others suggest tackling politics head on, playing the game to the best of your ability. "You can neither avoid the common cold nor office politics," says Vickie Rotante, Principal at Impera Executive Recruiters. "The goal is rather to navigate well and with integrity, because that is a sustainable model."
One way to approach politics is to avoid taking sides. "You are likely to feel that someone is in the wrong in certain situations," says career coach Chaz Pitts-Kyser. "However, unless you are directly involved in it, you shouldn't deliberately show whose side you are on." Another option is to steer clear of manipulative co-workers.
Rotante notes that there will be some co-workers who enjoy pushing others' buttons. "The emotions they stir up make you feel disoriented and even unprofessional if you react negatively," she says. "One of the best ways to win in the political game is to steer clear of these people."
So what do you do if you've made any of these mistakes? If the faux pas didn't cost you your job, count your blessings and focus on the future. If it did result in a serious setback or even job loss, you can still take the lessons to the bank by learning from them and assuring that history doesn't repeat itself later in your career.
"The worst mistake you can make at work is becoming debilitated by guilt and remorse for a mistake you made," says Scott Eblin, executive coach and former Fortune 500 executive. "Breathe, learn how it should have been done and then take immediate action to correct your mistake. Put the guilt behind you as fast as possible so you can move on and regain productivity and respect."
Robin Madell has spent more than two decades as a corporate writer, journalist and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology and public-interest issues. She serves as a copywriter, speechwriter and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. Madell has interviewed more than 200 thought leaders around the globe, winning 20 awards for editorial excellence. She served on the board of directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association in New York and San Francisco. Madell is the author of "Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30" and co-author of "The Strong Principles: Career Success." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.