3 Annoying Habits of Successful People

Last Updated Apr 13, 2011 9:38 AM EDT

I once had the privilege of spending 50 days with Peter Drucker, the world's great authority on management. During that time, he said many memorable things, but one that sticks in my mind was a comment he made about my profession. Coaches, he said, spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. But we don't spend enough time teaching them what to stop.

So what do you need to stop? Everyone has annoying habits that hold them back, make them a little less happy than they could be.

Now you may be thinking that you don't have any truly annoying habits. Wrong. The fact is, you're probably a little delusional. The more successful you are, the more delusional you probably are. Successful people's confidence and optimism aren't always warranted, but that's what keeps them plunging ahead. Research shows that depressed people, on the other hand, are very realistic. Self-delusion, then, isn't entirely a bad thing, but it does mean that you probably are resistant to thinking critically about yourself.

So here are the three most common, annoying habits of successful people. Read on, and see if you recognize yourself.

1. They need to win all the time. If it is important, they want to win! If it is critical, they want to win! If it is trivial? They still want to win. Here's a hypothetical test that 75 percent of my most successful clients fail: You want to go to dinner at Restaurant X. But your spouse or friend wants to go to dinner at Restaurant Y. After a heated discussion, you go to Restaurant Y. This was not your choice, the food tastes awful, and the service is terrible. Now you have two options: You could critique the food and point out what a terrible choice this was, and this mistake could have been avoided if only you would have listened to me. The other option is to shut up, eat the food and try to enjoy the evening. Now what should you do? When I asked my clients this hypothetical, 75 percent say the right thing to do is to shut up. But what would they do? Critique the food. They do the opposite of what they know they should do.

Here's one more hypothetical: You get home from a hard day at work. And your spouse, partner or friend says, "I had such a rough day today!" Now many smart, successful people will respond, "You had a hard day? Do you have any idea what I had to put up with today!" They're so competitive they have to prove they are more miserable than their mate!

2. They try too hard to add value. Here's an example: you have an enthusiastic, creative employee who comes to you with an idea. You think it's a terrific idea. But instead of saying, "Terrific idea," you say, "That's good. Why don't you add this piece to it?" Now this young person's idea may increase in value by about 5 percent, but his commitment? Well that's down about 50 percent because it's no longer his idea--it's yours.

It's just incredibly hard for smart, successful people not to constantly go through life tweaking others' ideas and proposals. Yes, you may be improving upon the initial idea, but you're sapping their enthusiasm. And by the way, if you're honest with yourself, you're not just trying to be helpful. You're telling the world how smart you are. For those of us with Ph.D.s, how quick are we to tell everyone that we have our doctorate? It's just incredibly hard for smart, successful people not to go through life telling others how smart they are. But you need to stop, really.

3. They are publicly critical. As a successful, smart person, you know how important it is to create positive relationships. You also have high standards. You know when performance falls short. But what happens to these relationships when you criticize and complain about colleagues in front of other people? Of course not.

Now, just so you know, I'm guilty of this annoying habit too. The first time I got feedback from my staff, I had them fill out a form. One item on it was called "avoid destructive comments about other people." What score did I get? The 8th percentile. That meant that 92 percent of the people in the world did a better job of avoiding destructive comments than I did. And I wrote the test!

Next time, I'll tell you how to break your annoying habits. But in the meantime, tell me: What annoying habits have you seen other successful people have?

image courtesy of flickr user, William A. Franklin
  • Kelly and

    Kelly Goldsmith is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Yale School of Management and a member of the faculty at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Her specialty is research in consumer decision making.
    Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and author. His books include What Got You Here Won't Get You There and Mojo. His specialty is helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.


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