How Trying To Win At Work Might Actually Be Holding You Back

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It seems counterintuitive, but the relentless drive to overachieve and ensure success can have the exact opposite effect. You end up with more work and more stress but not with more opportunities. In your bid to win the approval and respect of others, you might inadvertently stifle your career progress and personal contentment.

Often, hard-working professionals fall into a cycle of chronic overachieving, underestimating their competence, and attributing success to luck rather than skill. Recognizing these signs is the first step towards overcoming the barriers that impede your professional growth.

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What's holding you back at work? Could be your perfectionism ... or more

Perfectionism, often seen as a positive trait, is a double-edged sword. This relentless pursuit of the flawless can set you on a treadmill of stress and anxiety, as it places you under immense pressure to avoid failure at all costs. When perfection becomes the goal, it's easy to fall into the trap of self-doubt and fear, and both can significantly hold you back.

The irony is that striving for the perfect result typically leads to a counterproductive mindset where minor mistakes feel catastrophic, escalating tension in yourself and potentially in your relationships with colleagues.

Consider the subjective nature of perfection; it's like chasing a mirage. What may seem ideal to you might not resonate the same way with a co-worker or a manager. This understanding can help you realign your goals toward progress rather than perfection. Why? Because taking imperfect action will often carry you further than perfect inactivity.

Remember, every successful individual you admire has a string of failures behind them—it is, after all, through our missteps that we uncover the most invaluable lessons. Every successful person has felt exactly the way you do at one time or another in their career.

How to succeed at work while letting go of your perfection & overly-lofty goals

1. Prioritize progress over perfection.

Instead of obsessing over getting everything just right, focus on moving forward. Break your larger goals into smaller actionable steps and celebrate the completion of each one. Every time you celebrate, your brain will get a hit of dopamine and will remember that achievement feels good. You’ll create a new pattern in your brain that rewards you for action, not perfection.

2. Embrace failure as an opportunity.

View each setback as a chance to learn and improve. It's not about how many times you stumble but how many times you rise with newfound wisdom. When you stop making it bigger than it is, others will as well.

3. Adjust your expectations.

Understand that holding yourself and others to impossibly high standards can strain relationships. Cultivating compassion for yourself and others lays the foundation for a supportive work environment. Practice your empathy—think of a child in your life who you care about very much. What would you say to them if they were beating themselves up? Now say that same thing to yourself!

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4. Simplify your focus.

Pick a project you're passionate about, then give it your all. Energy channeled into one task at a time can yield better results than scattered, overextended efforts. Making strides in one area creates evidence in your brain that you can accomplish your goals, which makes you more confident in taking on new tasks.

5. Strengthen self-acceptance.

Mistakes are a part of being human. Everyone, regardless of whether you see them or not, makes mistakes. Accepting the imperfections in your work and life fosters a sense of peace and self-assurance critical for personal growth.

6. Keep perspective.

In the grand scheme of life, most work stresses are transient. What seems monumental now might be insignificant in a few years, so take critiques in stride and don't sweat the small stuff. A helpful exercise is to go back through your career and remember times of stress. How many of those situations have a direct effect on your life today? You’ll be surprised at how few, if any, had a long-term impact on your career.

7. Explore underlying causes.

If your perfectionism is rooted in deeper experiences, it may be helpful to reflect or seek support to understand these influences and break the cycle of self-imposed pressure. Making intentional shifts in your mindset and practices gradually liberates you from the perfectionism trap holding you back. It's about finding balance, allowing yourself the freedom to experiment without fear, and recognizing your right to a work-life marked by personal growth and gratifying achievements.

8. Recognize the fear of vulnerability.

Fear of vulnerability in the workplace is a common roadblock that can invisibly tether you, holding you back from achieving your highest potential. When you're constantly on guard, worried about how others perceive your actions or doubting whether to express your true self, it places you in a perpetual state of threat detection.

Your brain is hardwired to detect threats and protect you, and your mental resources will be hijacked to protect your safety. This inhibits your ability to perform at your best, as your energy is diverted from innovation and creativity towards self-editing and avoiding potentially punitive reactions. Yet, when vulnerability is encouraged and rewarded, it opens the floodgates to innovation, allowing a high level of psychological safety where ideas can flourish without fear of ridicule or negative consequences.

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Embrace the power of your vulnerability 

1. Normalize vulnerability.

Emphasize it's not only OK but beneficial to show vulnerability at work. This could be as simple as sharing your thoughts on a project or as significant as admitting a mistake.



2. Cultivate trust through actions.

Trust is the bedrock of vulnerability. Work on building confidence amongst your peers by reciprocating openness. If your co-worker asks for help, extend support ungrudgingly. Similarly, don't hesitate to ask for their input when needed. When you express vulnerability, it makes it safe for others to do so—which can create trusting relationships and increase your sense of security in your team.

3. Foster emotional resilience.

Equip yourself with the tools to handle criticism and rejection constructively. Emotional resilience can convert potential vulnerabilities into learning moments, contributing to personal and professional growth. (Could we add an article about Positive Intelligence here? It’s a program around building mental resilience)

4. Remember, vulnerability may vary from one person to another.

Some may find sharing personal stories in the workspace a demonstration of vulnerability while others may view asking for help, admitting uncertainty, or contributing unique perspectives to discussions as deeply personal exposures. Your unique experiences, beliefs, and perceptions shape what makes you feel vulnerable, and recognizing these moments for what they are — opportunities for genuine connection — is the first step towards leveraging this superpower. A healthy workplace environment acknowledges these acts of bravery and supports them through a culture that leads by example. It starts at the top with leaders who are open to feedback and show their human side by admitting when they're unsure or need assistance.

Here are some strategies to navigate the complex landscape of vulnerability while maintaining professionalism.

1. Balance with boundaries

Be authentic and mindful of the boundaries necessary to retain a professional atmosphere. Share and be open, but also respect the comfort levels of yourself and others, avoiding undue emotional labor. And if someone begins to cross your boundaries with sharing, let them know calmly and compassionately where your comfort levels lie.

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2. Lead by example.

If you're in a leadership role, show your team that it's okay to struggle and ask for help. Your honesty will nurture mutual respect and could encourage everyone to be more open and supportive.

3. Encourage a safe space for risk.

Promote an environment where taking creative risks is a sign of strength. This attitude fosters a dynamic and innovative workspace where diverse thoughts and perspectives are valued and explored. Creating a new perspective around what it means to take chances can make you stand out in the crowd—people will always gravitate towards those who make it safe for them to be themselves.



Remember, what you might fear as a weakness is the root of genuine leadership and deeper workplace connections. When vulnerability is properly managed and encouraged within an organization, it can lead to fulfilled workers and a significant boost in creativity and team solidarity. Holding back from vulnerability means depriving yourself and your organization of these profound benefits, which are so necessary in today's dynamic work culture.

4. Be aware of the comparison game.

The workplace can often feel like a battleground of achievements where comparison lurks in every corner, subtly nudging you into constant competition with your colleagues. A staggering 40% of professionals confess to feeling envious of their peers weekly, stirred by differences in salary, promotions, and career milestones. While it's natural to glance sideways to see how you stack up, beware how this comparison game could be what's holding you back, leading to unwelcome stress and a deflated self-esteem that hinders both personal and professional growth.

Rather than succumbing to the draining cycle of negative comparison, which shifts your focus from your unique path to someone else's journey, why not forge a different approach?

5. Learn, don't linger on comparison.

Observing the accomplishments of successful colleagues can be a trove of career shortcuts—if you focus on learning rather than lamenting. Ask yourself, “What skills or habits have helped them succeed that I can adopt?” Or be brave and ask them directly!

6. Seek collaborative growth.

Embrace the practice of seeking feedback and brainstorming in teams, which enriches your work quality and highlights your value as a team player committed to shared success. If you find that challenging, either because of introversion, you might say, “As an introvert, I usually take some time to fully absorb the materials. Can I come back to you later with questions? I’ll have them after I’ve had time to process.” Letting others around you know your personality traits will help them understand you better and manage their expectations.

7. Value your journey.

Recognize the mix of experiences and skills of your professional story one-of-a-kind. This narrative is a work in progress, and the lessons along the way sculpt your distinctive edge.

In your efforts to detangle from the web of comparison, harness a positive mindset to reinforce your invincibility and spur you on to accomplish your goals. Keep in mind comparison can breed an environment where defensiveness or over-preparation may take root and potentially spiral into overworking and avoidance of help.

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Break free from comparative patterns

1. Celebrate wins — including others.

Genuinely recognize the achievements of your peers. Their triumphs are not an indication of your failure. Use them as inspiration to fuel your ambition.

2. Practice mindfulness and self-critique.

When self-doubt creeps in, consciously replace it with positive affirmation. This sense of mindfulness can radically change your internal dialogue from being self-critical to self-championing.



3. Promote open communication.

Encourage a culture where successes are openly shared and where fostering mutual support is the norm, even if you aren’t leading a team or department. By addressing competitive instincts constructively, a collaborative spirit is woven into the very fabric of the team.

Remember, the glossy veneers you encounter, especially on social media, often eclipse the complete picture, potentially skewing gratitude and satisfaction with your circumstances. Self-awareness and compassion, combined with relishing your progress and achievements, are the keys to powering past the negative comparison game. This focused lens will relieve you of the pressure and position you to stride confidently toward the milestones that resonate with your aspirations.

4. Drop the myth of perfect timing.

The idea you need to manage time to unlock peak productivity is a seductive one but not the full picture. It's crucial to sift through your to-dos, spotlighting essential tasks, and bypass those that don't move you forward. If you find yourself clinging to the myth of perfect timing, you're likely keeping yourself perpetually on standby. The truth is, the very moment you zero in on what needs to be done versus what you're doing out of habit or obligation, you start breaking the chains holding you back.

Improve task management and focus on what's truly important:

1. Review your to-do list.

Are all tasks necessary, or do some belong to the 'nice to have' category? Prioritize them accordingly.

2. Assess and act.

Give each task an urgency status - which ones require immediate attention, and which can be scheduled for later? Remember, you might be in the habit of over-assigning importance to all your tasks. Review critically for those that require your best to be successful and those that will likely be successful even if you don’t devote yourself 100% to their outcomes.

3. Learn to delegate.

If it's not essential for you to personally handle it, pass it on. This frees up time and mental space for urgent priorities. If you are not in a position to delegate, be very careful about what you take on for new and extra tasks. Know your limits and respect your time.

Embracing the 'start now' mindset accelerates your journey towards your aspirations. If you're holding back, waiting for a sign or the perfect opportunity, you might find yourself stuck in endless procrastination. It's time to shake off the paralysis by analysis. Begin with determination, understanding that every action propels you further than inaction, every informed risk brings learning, and each small step accumulates into significant progress.



Good time management is more about managing your actions and habits than managing time itself. By taking charge of what you do and when you do it, you protect your well-being and sustain your energy. Plus, the benefits are multi-fold:

  • Less Stress: Prioritizing tasks means less juggling and worrying about undelivered commitments.
  • Better Balance: Knowing when to step away ensures you don't burn out and maintains harmony between work and personal life.
  • Enhanced Focus: Tackling items methodically can improve concentration and reduce distractions.

Lastly, remember that self-compassion is a powerful ally. If your timing isn't perfect, that's okay. Adopting the 'good enough' approach liberates you from the pursuit of the elusive ideal. By acknowledging how the right time often aligns with action rather than contemplation, you can move forward more swiftly and confidently.

Putting it all together.

celebrating success

Photo: Maridav via Shutterstock

Now we have peeled away the layers of what might be inadvertently holding you back in your professional journey, from the relentless pursuit of perfection to the hesitation in embracing team success and the value of rest. The perils of invulnerability, the detrimental effects of unhealthy comparison, and the myth of perfect timing can be circumvented to emerge more self-aware and equipped to realize your full potential. Emphasize the significance of progress over perfection, the power of vulnerability as a source of strength, the futility of incessant comparison, and the fallacy of waiting for the 'perfect' moment.

Whether through adopting more effective task management techniques, nurturing vulnerability and confidence, or recalibrating personal expectations, the journey towards overcoming what holds you back is one of incremental progress and intentional action. The realization of your ambitions hinges on forces directly within your control if you take the courage to face, understand, and conquer these challenges.

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Amy Bracht is a coach and consultant with a knack for transforming high-level concepts into practical solutions. She crafts innovative strategies designed to guide individuals toward their full potential.