logo image

ATD Blog

Overcoming career-limiting habits


Fri Sep 21 2012


In a recent study on change management, my colleagues and I found that 97 percent of employees report they have some career-limiting habit that keeps them from achieving their potential at work. These habits cost employees raises and promotions they might have otherwise received.

Take Rick, for example. His manager—who also happens to be the CEO—describes him as both brilliant and a tyrant. He recently told Rick he is not on the succession plan for the CEO position because the board believes his bad temper would destroy the company.


That comment from Rick’s manager underscores the other key findings in the study. The study shows the vast majority of managers are pessimistic their employees will ever change their career-limiting habit. In fact, managers report that only 10 to 20 percent of their employees actually make profound and lasting changes to their career-limiting habit.

Here are the top 5 career-limiting habits:

  1. Unreliability

  2. "it's not my Job

  3. Procrastination

  4. Resistance to change

  5. Negative attitude

So, why do so few succeed at reversing their bad habits? The mistake we often make is we put far too many eggs in the “willpower” basket. We say to ourselves, “I’ll just do it!” as if we could bend our entire universe with the force of our will. As managers, we often look at an employee who knows he or she should change but doesn’t, assuming that he or she is lazy or unmotivated. That is usually not the case.  

It turns out there is an exponentially more successful approach to influencing change then simply gutting it out. There are six sources of influence that explain why we make the choices we do. These sources target both our motivation and ability on a personal, social and structural level.



Therefore, when employees rely solely on their willpower to create change, they fail to consider the five other sources of influence that determine their actions. For example, perhaps they don’t know how to improve, or they lack the social support; it also may be that the behaviors that are rewarded in the workplace are counter-productive to their end goal.


Managers can help employees to achieve greater results by implementing strategies within the six sources of influence.


  1. Flash forward to the future. The best employee motivation is to help employees visit their “default future”—the career they’ll have if they are repeatedly passed up for promotion. Help them visualize the money they’ll lose and opportunities they’ll miss. Specifically, if a 30-year-old employee earning $60,000 is passed up for a promotion with a 2 percent raise, they’ll incur a loss of $59,780 over the lifespan of their career. 

  2. Invest in professional development. New habits always require new skills. Help employees actively develop the skills they’ll need to be viewed as a top performer through training, workshops or books. 

  3. Hang with the hard-workers. The bad attitudes and habits that keep people back are likely enabled, tolerated or encouraged by others. Encourage struggling employees to associate with hard-working colleagues who share similar career goals. 

  4. Find a mentor. Changing habits requires help. If you can’t mentor a struggling employee personally, help him or her find a mentor who will encourage their progression and navigate career development opportunities within the organization.

  5. Put skin in the game. Reward employees for reaching short-term goals by placing money at risk. For example, tie small bonuses, rewards or incentives to their ability to meet their goals in their next employee performance review.

  6. Control the workspace. Make employees’ new habits easier by enlisting the power of their surroundings. If they’d benefit from close association with another team, relocate their office space.

Our research has shown that by following a change model that’s informed by good science, the differences in effectiveness are not merely incremental, they are exponential.


Managers can help employees increase their productivity by understanding employee behavior and enabling employees with a multi-faceted improvement plan. When we escape the willpower trap and develop competence in engaging all six sources of influence, we can change behavior and influence others for good.

About David Maxfield

David Maxfield is the New York Times best-selling co-author of Change Anything and Influencer. Maxfield is also the vice president of research for VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. The company has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained 800,000 people worldwide.

You've Reached ATD Member-only Content

Become an ATD member to continue

Already a member?Sign In


Copyright © 2024 ATD

ASTD changed its name to ATD to meet the growing needs of a dynamic, global profession.

Terms of UsePrivacy NoticeCookie Policy