4 Things That Are Holding You Back at Work, According to Harvard

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You know you work hard. You know you have value and promise and talent. And yet, at the end of the day, it continually feels as though you’re falling just shy of reaching your full potential. What gives?

According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, in an article he wrote for Harvard Business Review, this is because potential is a murky thing. No matter our competency levels, there are certain factors — like emotional makeup, preferences, and disposition — that can stand in the way of our potential, not to mention environmental ones. Below are four of the most common reasons that Chamorro-Premuzic says cause people to fall short of reaching their career potential.

1. You’re a poor fit in your role.

Or rather, your role is a poor fit for you. Chamorro-Premuzic describes this as “person-job-fit,” saying it’s measured by “quantifying the degree of alignment between a person’s attitudes, values, abilities, and dispositions on the one hand, and the characteristics of the job, role, and organization on the other.” The problem, he adds, is that even when hiring managers are correct in the way they evaluate a candidate, oftentimes they may have a looser understanding of what the role itself entails.

“This is why so many organizations see themselves as more inclusive, diverse, innovative, and prosocial than they actually are,” he wrote. “It’s wishful thinking rather than accurate self-assessment. This obviously impacts a candidates’ perceptions of the role and organization, where it may take them a while to truly experience the culture and understand what the role truly entails and demands from them.”

2. You’re disengaged.

Feeling as though you’re a poor fit for role may be one cause of disengagement. Another is poor leadership, Chamorro-Premuzic pointed out. 

“Management malfunction, particularly of the male variety, explains not just why so many people underperform at work, but also why talented and star employees quit their jobs, and even traditional employment altogether,” he wrote. “You can’t just suddenly decide to replace your boss with a better leader — someone who inspires and mentors you, provides objective and constructive feedback on your performance, and gets you excited about work when you wake up every morning. Note that even if your boss is capable of doing all these things, they may not be engaged themselves, perhaps because they work for an incompetent leader (or someone who is not engaged).”

In a situation like this, Chamorro-Premuzic recommends connecting with your colleagues as a means of fostering engagement, as well as flat-out telling your boss that you feel disengaged.

3. You’re being impacted by organizational politics.

 Despite the effort many modern employers have made to be fairer and more transparent in their talent management practices, workplace politics still exist. 

“Business leaders rejoice in the idea that their companies are meritocratic talent magnets, but the reality is that even when they are able to draw star performers into their companies, those stars will have to learn how to navigate the toxic and nepotistic side of any culture — including some basic degree of organizational politics,” he wrote. “Unsurprisingly, much career and executive coaching focuses on improving people’s soft and political skills, and a person’s political savvy has been found to promote their career success irrespective of their talents and technical skills.”

4. You’re dealing with personal circumstances.

We all have periods in life where work and professional achievements take second seat to navigating something in our personal lives. And that’s totally okay. 

“In today’s ever-more-absorbing and 24/7 world of work, it’s easy to forget that people also have a personal and private life, and that no matter how engaged and talented they are, personal drawbacks and setbacks will often interfere with their career success,” he wrote. “Good bosses and supportive employers will want to understand your circumstances, and you can be sure they will have a vested interest in helping you deal with them so you can deliver in accordance with your talents, and feel grateful and committed to them in the long run.”