Do you sometimes feel you are being punished for success in your job? Contradictory as it sounds, the very strengths that other people value in you can sometimes be your undoing. What are the warning signs and how do you avoid falling into this common trap?

Emma is in her second job in her chosen field having graduated five years ago. She has successfully moved up to a higher level role in a different organisation than her entry-level job. It involves building relationships with clients, organising and hosting evening events, contributing to strategy development and implementing plans for meeting targets. It’s a full-on role with a culture of long hours and discretionary effort taken for granted if she wants to succeed there.

Emma is highly organised and productive with a can-do attitude. She refers to herself as a bit of a perfectionist and doesn’t like letting people down (and she never does). Colleagues go to her first for database questions because Emma knows it better than anyone else. Managers rely on her to sort their diaries out and first drafts of some of their emails (yes, really). Deadlines are rarely missed and events are always well received.

Eleanor Roosevelt quoteEmma gets personal kudos from being asked by senior management to do things and satisfaction at being seen as a developing expert in her field. However, she feels her managers could do a lot more for themselves and what gets delegated often takes her away from her core tasks. The long hours are tiring and affect her sleep pattern. Managers will change their mind about an agreed course of action and will abandon projects in which Emma has already met milestones. ‘It’s alright, Emma can cope, she always does’.

I can relate to Emma’s predicament as it has happened to me in the past. It results in work overload and stress, not out of malice or lack of care, but out of lack of awareness. Things won’t change if you don’t recognise and raise the issues, reach a common understanding and do something about it.

How clear is your job role?

Lack of role clarity is a common reason why you can end up being punished for success. Many roles have three perspectives that affect how you do the job in practice, especially when they conflict:

  • Prescribed – what the organisation expects you to do (via job description, competencies, company values)Role Clarity
  • Personalised – how you actually do the job bringing your personality, experience, abilities, personal values (no two people do it the same way)
  • Perceived – what managers, peers, customers expect you to do (based on their view of the role, how they might do it, their values)

In practice, your role can be a messy mix of all three, so it pays to raise your own and other people’s awareness and to address misunderstandings.

What action can you take?

Here are 4 areas to focus on if you are being punished for success, drawing upon Emma’s example:

Be clear about the real purpose of your job

Go back to basics and have a conversation with your manager to ensure your expectations align. Clarify the three role perspectives above by talking to people. Own your feelings and explain the current impact on you. Redefine success. Watch this brilliant video to help you work out your real purpose.

Identify your strengths and when you overplay them

Emma’s strengths as a perfectionist are being thorough, accurate and reliable. Spending too long on something and losing sight of the end goal can be downsides if she overplays them. Get someone you trust and who have seen you in action to tell you how you behave at work and the impact it has. Adjust accordingly.

Develop your assertiveness and negotiation skills

Being assertive is about pursuing your goals in the situation and the goals of the other people in the situation – without falling out about it. Emma may be too passive in not standing up for what she wants to achieve (leading to frustration and being taken advantage of). Also, she may not fully understand the position of her managers (so take an interest in their world). Learn to say ‘no’ without offence, establish some give and take, be resilient and sometimes just take it on the chin.

Don’t fight the culture because the culture will win

You are probably in the wrong organisation if you find yourself consistently unhappy and forever challenging appropriately but without success. Are your values and the company values in tune? Are behaviours and practices out of sync? Is this the place where you want to be? Can you be who you are in this place? Step back and see what is within your control and what is not, then take action. Emma could negotiate an alternative work pattern, tasks could be distributed differently within the team and her manager could protect her more from demands from above.

There is no how it is, only how it is for you – Tim Brownson

What options will you create? What choices will you make to take charge of your job and career?