In a recent podcast episode, we discussed career derailment; this three-part blog series further unpacks this important topic.
We start by exploring what we mean by derailment and how our strengths are often to blame. We’ll then explore the ways in which our strengths can work against us. Finally, and most importantly, we’ll look at what we can do about it.
Let’s start with the essentials.
What do we really mean by derailment?
The term derailment conjures up images of high profile, unscrupulous leaders basking in power, while accepting little responsibility. It’s the stuff that films are made of and it captures our attention. But the reality, for most of us who experience derailment, is that it’s far more commonplace and significantly more benign.
Derailment is a risk for everyone. Few of us have anything but the best of intentions for our organisations and those we work with. So, if we ignore the ‘snakes in suits’, what is derailment, really?
Derailment describes how our career, performance or wellbeing suffers, typically under the demands and pressure of a new working context or more senior role, and often because of our own behaviour.
We call this derailment because we’ve likely been very much ‘on track’ in the past. Perhaps even a stand-out performer. Yet suddenly, we find ourselves missing targets or failing to deliver on objectives. We may notice we are making poor decisions, struggling to adapt to change, damaging our relationships with others, and even experiencing the effects of stress.
The dark side of strengths
Paradoxically, the reasons we start to derail can often be attributed to the very strengths that have helped us in our career. The behaviours and associated skills that come most naturally to us, often based on our personality preferences. These are qualities for which we have probably been recognised, that have been reinforced and rewarded. They can become a core part of how we view ourselves (our identity) and how we are viewed by other people (our reputation).
Problems often arise when something changes in our working context. We may find ourselves in a new work environment or role, with a broader, more significant or unfamiliar set of requirements. Alternatively, we might find we are facing increased pressure to perform. Or, our performance may be under the spotlight due to organisational changes often beyond our control.
This is frequently something we experience as we progress into more senior roles or even as we move between teams or organisations. Contexts where we need to adapt our behaviour to a new set of demands. We may need to employ behaviours or strengths that come less naturally to us. We may even find that we need to dial down our strengths, rather than rely on them as we have before. We might start to experience the stress that comes with needing to work outside of our comfort zone, which can make matters worse.
When high standards don’t help
To bring this to life: imagine someone with a strong eye for detail, who works to a very high standard. This combination has probably served them well so far in their career. If they move from an individual contributor role into leadership, and don’t dial down this strength, they may be at risk of micromanaging others. They may struggle to see the bigger picture and possibly even burn-out if they take too much on, due to a fear of delegating to others.
This risk may be increased if we also introduce a change in working context. Imagine moving from a highly regulated, risk averse organisation to a culture characterised by autonomy, innovation and relaxed ways of working. In other words, understanding context is crucial. What works really well for us in one setting may actually work against us in another.
Derailment is something that can affect us all. It’s usually because of our own strengths and especially if the demands of our context have changed in some way. In the next post in our series, we’ll explore the different ways in which our strengths can start to work against us.
🎧 Check out episode 128 of our podcast to hear Lucie discuss derailment in detail.