Director, Korn Ferry Institute
The Top 4 Career Stallers and Stoppers
Many ambitious workers spend their whole careers toiling and strategizing to get ahead. If their career trajectories plateau, they may blame the bosses who failed to recognize their brilliance and promote them, or the corporate politics that hampered their ascent, or the no-win assignments they took on. They point at everyone and everything except themselves.
But experts say that a half dozen very common traits and actions frequently stall out high performers, impeding otherwise rosy career paths. “When you see these behaviors in yourself or teams, they’re something that you really need to pay attention to and adjust,” says Paula Kerr, a director at the Korn Ferry Institute, who recently co-authored a report on the topic. The stymied employees frequently don’t realize their error—nor that it may have been relatively easy to fix.
The most common behavioral tendency that impedes career paths is also the most difficult to quantify, says human resources expert Ron Porter, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. He often sees talented workers behaving in ways that are subtly counter to the organizational culture, such as doing a task but ignoring corporate processes.
Among low-level workers, these transgressions—such as mocking leadership or lying—can conflict with corporate values. As employees rise into successful careers, the behaviors become subtler, such as not sharing information or very dryly roasting a leader in company email or messaging. “It’s anything that smells of acting in a way other than the right way,” says Porter.
Here are the four behaviors and traits that most often obstruct performance and stall promising careers. They are to be avoided like your career depends on it—because it does:
Overdependence on one skill.
Excellence in one niche can be an Achilles’ heel as you rise through an organization. “It really limits what one can do in more complex leadership roles,” says Sarah Hezlett, vice president of assessment science for North America at the Korn Ferry Institute, who co-authored the report with Kerr. A common example is overreliance on technical abilities. In managerial roles, where skills such as effective communication and the ability to balance competing interests are essential in overseeing others’ work, technical brilliance becomes a side player.
Blocked personal learning.
This is a common weak spot among high achievers, who are usually very successful with their own skills and methods, and therefore not proactive in learning new behaviors and strategies. “You can put them in new experiences, but they don’t learn from them, and therefore aren’t really gaining ground,” says Hezlett. As they climb the ladder, this becomes a bigger problem, because failure to learn from experiences correlates negatively with team leadership, where learning on the go and adjusting accordingly are crucial.
Failure to build teams or staff effectively.
“Lone wolves don’t do well in most corporate environments,” says Porter. Though you might imagine what an employee who doesn’t get along with others is like, in practice these workers may be high achievers who appear to run functional teams. Upon examination, however, they approach teammates as a collection of individuals, delegate in pieces so that employees do not gain ownership of projects and successes, or don’t share credit for wins. Korn Ferry research suggests that these habits become more damaging as people rise higher in a firm. “If you’re looking to get to the top of almost any organization, there’s not really a place for that type of leadership,” Porter says.
This is often the shortcoming of high performers who are prone to focusing on details—or even to getting mired in them. “They can’t deal with assignments that require strategic thinking,” says Kerr. The problem is simple: Managers and leaders need to oversee many moving parts and cannot create effective approaches without seeing the whole chessboard. Korn Ferry researchers found that it is the second-most potent way to stall performance at all levels of an organization.