this is maybe why your career is stalled

If you’d like to be doing better in your career, it’s worth asking yourself if your own beliefs about work might be holding you back. Here are eight common misconceptions that can keep you from getting the projects, jobs, promotions, and salary you’d like.

1. Doing your job adequately is enough. Doing a merely adequate job isn’t enough these days. With so many qualified job seekers available for hire, you need to go above and beyond in order to be seen as valuable to your boss. If you’re simply meeting your employer’s minimum expectations, your boss can quickly find someone who will do more.

2. If you do good work, your attitude doesn’t matter. If you complain frequently, regularly shoot down ideas, or act like the office prima donna, your boss probably considers you a pain to deal with. And that will probably result in less interesting assignments, less flexibility, lower raises, and a higher chance of ending up at the top of the list if cuts ever need to be made.

3. Asking questions about an assignment will make you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Good managers want you to ask questions, because they want you to get it right, not makes mistakes that could cost the employer time and money. In fact, it’s generally unnerving when an employee who’s taking on new work doesn’t ask questions about it. Managers want to make sure that you’re on the same page as they are, and asking questions is often essential to get there.

4. Being liked and making friends at work is more important than doing your job well. Few people would say this outright, even to themselves, but many people’s behavior shows that they do believe this: They chit-chat when they should be working, they don’t assert themselves when work is being done incorrectly, and gossip about the boss when doing so could destroy their own relationship with their manager. Bonding with your coworkers is great, but not at the expense of your reputation or your job.

5. You don’t need critical feedback. If you get upset, angry, or offended when your boss gives you feedback about your work, you’re doing yourself a disservice. If nothing else, it’s in your best interest to hear what your manager is concerned about, and if you’re focused on defending yourself, you’ll miss out on the value of what’s being said. And if your managers happens to be right, blocking out her input means that you’ll deny yourself the chance to get better at what you do.

6. Playing online during the day won’t affect your work. If you’re using social networking sites or instant-messaging or browsing online sales throughout the workday, it’s probably impacting your work. Sure, you might be getting the basics done, but you don’t want to just do the basics – you want to build a stellar reputation as someone who routinely exceeds expectations. And if nothing else, spending a lot of work time online will create the appearance that you’re not working hard, whether or not it’s true.

7. If you make a mistake, you should make sure people don’t know.Everyone makes mistakes from time to time; what matters is how you handle it when you do. If you don’t accept responsibility or—worse— try to cover up that a mistake was made at all, your boss will likely be far more angry at this than at the mistake itself. Instead, acknowledge the mistake, explain why it happened, and explain what you’re doing to fix it and ensure it’s not repeated.

8. Your work speaks for itself. You could do great work, but if no one knows about it, you might not get the credit you deserve. When you meet (or exceed) a goal, or get a grateful email from a customer, or resolve a sticky situation with everyone happy, make sure that your boss knows about it.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 79 comments… read them below }

  1. sparky629*

    So I have a follow up question to the interview question.

    >>How long did the previous person in the role hold the position? What has turnover in the role generally been like?

    What if the turnover has been high for this position, what is a good question to inquire about the turnover. Would it be appropriate to say ‘why do you think that this position has had high turnover?’.
    I’m asking because as I proceed in my career search, I know what I am capable of dealing with in a job.
    I can truly deal with difficult bosses (been there- done that) but I have little tolerance for positions that offer absolutely little/no growth or a definitive career track in the company.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, totally appropriate to just ask in the way you worded it. Just make sure that your tone doesn’t sound horrified or accusatory.

      However, since you’re also very concerned about positions with no growth and this question won’t necessarily reveal that, I’d also make sure to ask about that separately — like “what do people usually do next after this position? I’d love to grow with the company long-term.”

  2. KayDay*

    hmm…I still disagree with you about the mistake thing. I think it is much more important that you fix/remedy the mistake as soon as possible. Fixing the mistake isn’t necessarily the same as covering it up. Don’t drag your boss into the problem unless it impacts them. Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s not necessary to apologize for every single one unless such mistakes actually hurt someone.

    For example, the other week I must have forgotten to complete a step when I was entering some payments we made :( The accountant asked me about it, so I re-entered the payments. I didn’t tell my boss because it doesn’t affect her; my boss has nothing to do with the day-to-day bookkeeping.

    Now, of course, when mistakes actually impact your boss and/or cannot be solved without your bosses knowledge or assistance, then you are spot-on. And, of course, never to lie about a mistake.

      1. AD*

        I think your last line is very important, too. You should tell your boss AND tell him what you are doing/have done to FIX it, and to PREVENT it in the future.

    1. jmkenrick*

      I also think this can relate to if the mistake is internal or external.

      I forgot to submit a document on time to our finance department. They let me know, I fixed it, no big deal.

      On the other hand, if I make a mistake that affects our clients, I try to keep my boss in the loop, or at least alert the other employees who are dealing with that client. That way everyone can be on the same page about the client relationship and we can make sure they are being well taken care of.

      1. Anonymous*


        If a situation effects a client there should be a note in the client file or verbal/email communication between staff. Even if the problem is fixed, it’s helpful to know about any problems in the clients history.

        I worked in a department where clients could be handled by any of our staff, it was extremely frustrating for everyone (clients and staff) when a client called and referenced a current or previous problem and the staff they were speaking to didn’t know about it, especially if the staff member who did know wasn’t available.

  3. AD*

    How about “you think that policies are the final word on flextime, vacation, etc.” If the policy says, for example, you can come in at 8:30 as long as you stay until 6, and you do that, but nobody else in your department does, you may be making a career-limiting move. Your manager may even say it’s okay, because she doesn’t want to go against policy, but everyone can see that it really isn’t “okay”.

    1. Mike C.*

      It just begs the question why the company sets these expectations and then punishes people for following them. It just sets people up to fail.

      1. KellyK*

        Another +1 from me. I agree with AD that being sensitive to the “unwritten rules” is smart. I just wish that when the unwritten rules blatantly contradict the written ones, policy would be updated to match what’s actually true, or individual managers would be upfront about their expectations. For example, if the policy says, “Vacation requests require a month’s notice,” but in reality no requests get approved without three months’ notice, just make the policy three months. If the policy says you get 20 vacation days, but the expectation is that you use no more than half of them unless there’s a death in the family, tell people that that’s the expectation when they come on board.

    2. ChristineH*

      Not sure I understand this one. What’s wrong with following policy?

      *Asked by someone who’s probably the most rule-conscious person on the planet*

      1. Anonymous*

        I think they’re referring to company culture vs. written rules, but my understanding has always been “when in doubt, follow policy” so I’m also curious about this.

      2. jmkenrick*

        I agree with Anon. I think the question is meant to establish whether people actually follow the policies that are in place or not.

        For example if a company has a policy of an 8:30am to 5:00pm work day with lunch – do people actually follow that schedule? Or is it sort of expected that you’ll stay till 8:00pm, even though *technically* you’re allowed to leave earlier.

      3. fposte*

        A workplace’s policy and a workplace’s culture aren’t always in agreement. The policy may technically give you twenty vacation days, but workplace culture could be that nobody takes a day off unless somebody died. You’re not going to advance there by adhering to the official policy but not understanding the culture.

        It’s like when your martyrdom-prone roommate/relative/whoever says, “Go ahead, just leave me behind and go without me,” but you know there’ll be hell to pay if you actually do it.

        1. Mike C.*

          Next, companies will expect you not to use your health insurance or cash your paychecks!

        2. Anonymous*

          It’s like when your martyrdom-prone roommate/relative/whoever says, “Go ahead, just leave me behind and go without me,” but you know there’ll be hell to pay if you actually do it.

          I remember that – he was left behind, and eventually people stopped bothering to ask if he wanted to come too.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It’s different when it’s your employer, obviously. Sometimes this kind of thing isn’t as unreasonable as it’s being interpreted here, though. For instance, the (exempt) guy who’s out the door every day at 5:00 on the dot because the employee handbook says the hours are 9-5. Hey, he’s following policy, right? Sure, but that kind of adhering to the letter of the policy and not giving an inch more doesn’t generally help people’s careers.

            I’m not saying he can’t do it. But this was an article about things that will hold you back in your career/keep you from promotions/etc., and that often will.

        1. Charles*

          oh dear – there I go again – not correctly my attempt at humor from a previous comment (yep, I sure do have attention to detail skills!)

      1. Ellie H.*

        I definitely read and enjoy them, but I also really appreciate discussing them in the comments here. The dialogues your posts produce are so interesting. I know we’re supposed to comment over there so that you can get pageviews but it’s hard because the commenting section is more lively and spirited here.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’m pretty sure that U.S. News cares about traffic but isn’t as concerned with comments, whereas Intuit QuickBase loves both :)

          I’m always happy to talk about them over here though. I like comments wherever they are!

        2. Rana*

          That, and their commenting interface stinks.

          I also very much appreciate your lists and advice; they help me think about the process and how it works, and for a person who loves learning new things but also doesn’t always get the “logic” of a situation right off the bat, they are wonderful.

      2. ChristineH*

        Are you kidding Alison? I, for one, LOVE lists! I find it makes the reading material less onerous and easier to follow.

      3. JT*

        I like the lists too, but for some reason they sometimes make me think of the cover of a magazine like Cosmo, or maybe Men’s Health, with “12 Ways to Get Your Career Back on Track” and “3 Secrets to Great Relations with Your Boss” etc all over the cover.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I know! Websites generally love lists — they get a lot of traffic. I tend not to do them over here as much (I tend to prefer answering a specific question), but I do them a lot for the places I write for.

          1. A Bug!*

            I think lists are popular in part because they alert the reader from the outset that it’s going to be light reading. I know a lot of people who just can’t be bothered to read an article and then glean the important points from it. Like myself, sometimes.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              I agree, and it’s easier on the eyes too. That’s why I like to use them on my blog. I tend to ramble and it’s better than writing blocks of text.

  4. Camellia*

    “The 10 Best Interview Questions to Ask” is also a great guide for interviewers. All they have to do is re-frame the questions. For example, “The biggest challenges the person in this position will face are *list two or three*; how would you handle each of these?”

    1. Sophie*

      That is a great idea. I have been participating in interviews for the last year for some positions on my team, and I am frequently annoyed that my manager does not talk about the negative aspects of the job. Fit and aptitude are really important to me, especially for my field – we don’t often get candidates with the exact experience or qualifications we are looking for, especially in the more entry level positions (never mind the fact that the job description posted on our website has the bar set way too high for what the job is actually doing – and paying). When I bring up some of the challenges and day to day tasks, that’s when the interview gets honest and I can actually see what the person is like, capable of, and if they will be happy in the position.

  5. Jamie*

    Guilty of 1 and 8 as of Monday, and a little bit of #6 – but just at AAM so I don’t think that should count. :)

    Last couple of days it’s less like working toward victory and more like moving bricks from one side of the prison yard to the other. I’m doing my job, just not sure what I’m supposed to be accomplishing.

    I really hope there’s a little grace period before these things kick in to stall a career. I could use another 48 hours, or so.

    1. sparky629*

      AAM doesn’t count in the browsing internet situation. AAM is for professional development purposes and is a completely legitimate way to maximize downtime at work by improving professional skills.
      Or at least that’s what I’m going to say if I ever get called out for reading this site during business hours.

        1. JT*

          I manage my organization’s Facebook presence so login in at work a few times a day, and even though I’m doing it for work, it feels weird sometimes.

  6. Vicki*

    Re: questions to ask after the interview — I need to print these out, carry them with me, and force myself to ask them every time. I didn’t ask them at an interview I had in February and ended up in a job that was a Very Bad Fit — one that I never would have accepted if I had asked these questions.

    The job lasted exactly one week (I tried), but on each subsequent day, I was more sure that it was a Bad Fit. Everything that was wrong was something that had not come up on the interview; they had never talked about those aspects and I didn’t ask probing questions. Instead, I spent the time convincing them to hire me (which they did).

    In theory, I should have known better, but it had been over 5 years since I last interviewed for a job, I needed work (laid off) and I really had the blinders on.

    Just keep in mind – the interview is there for YOU to learn if the JOB is a fit, not just for you to sell yourself to the people on the other side of the table.

  7. Chani*

    So AAM – if I ask these types of questions during an interview, and figure out that the job is not right for me, is it okay to say so during the interview? I remember seeing another one of your posts about gracefully exiting a horrible interview but this list called to mind an interview I had several years ago (yes I’m still scarred lol). I asked several of those questions, and decided it was a bad fit, and it was a pretty horrible interview overall because of the interviewer. I was desperate to escape to so I ended (what I thought was the end) with, well thank you for talking to me, but I don’t think this job is the right for me, I appreciate your time, I’ll be going now. She blew up and told me I was being insolent and immature, and kept me another half hour and told me all the things she didn’t like about me and what I had done wrong, then finished with, it’s for your own good. I left as quickly as I could and cried in my car. Thinking back I probably should have not said that but at the beginning of the interview, the woman said that if at any time I decided it was not right for me, I should say so – so when I did, she blew up at me. Lol.

    1. AD*

      It depends, is this a one-hour interview and you figure it out 45 minutes in? I wouldn’t say anything in that case, but then I would follow-up with an e-mail very soon after and say that you no longer wish to continue in the process. I think that is less likely to be taken personally, because it could be any number of reasons: better offer, talked it over with your spouse, whatever.

      On the other hand, if you are scheduled for an hour each with five different managers, and realize it 45 minutes in, you should say so before you waste the rest of your day and everyone else’s.

      1. Chani*

        It was about 5 minutes into the interview itself and even before then. I arrive about 10 minutes early and spoke with the receptionist, and she informed me the interviewer would see me shortly. Half hour after that, the interviewer called me, no explanation why she called me half hour after our set meeting time (I’m not owed anything but it would have been nice to know). She then spent 20 minutes talking about herself, how awesome she was, how professional she was (after being half hour late), and told me to let her know at any point if I didn’t think it would work out, so that’s why I made that judgement call, otherwise I wouldn’t have said anything in the actual interview. She was pretty arrogant and condescending even before that point.

        1. Anonymous*

          “I’m not owed anything but it would have been nice to know”

          In my oppinion, if someone sets a time to meet with you, you are owed that they will show up reasonably on time (a couple of minutes late happens, half an hour is not ok) or contact you to let you know they’ll be late. I don’t think it matters who they are, that’s just common courtesy.

          Good call on getting out of there!

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Absolutely. Things do come up, but then a polite person will explain that and apologize — not just ignore it and act like it didn’t happen.

          2. KellyK*

            Yep, I agree with that too. I figure that fifteen minutes is a reasonable grace period for most things, but for a formal interview (where you’ll be judged if you’re a minute late), five to ten is about the max before it’s really rude not to give at least a “Sorry to keep you waiting; my last meeting ran over.”

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I agree with AD — unless it’s a series of interviews lasting many hours, better to just not say anything. But wow — that woman sounds incredible — if I thought there was a chance of that kind of reaction, I might say something just for the sheer entertainment value of it.

      3. Steve G*

        It must have been a bad job and she knew she was interviewing for a bad job and so felt insecure about it. Otherwise, she would have said “thanks, bye. Next!”

    2. Charles*

      “She blew up . . . kept me another half hour . . “

      Normally I am a very patient peson; but in this case you have way more patience than I do; I wouldn’t have stayed for a minute if someone “blew up” at me.

      1. Jamie*

        I was thinking the same thing – I didn’t get the “kept me another half hour” part.

        If I decided a meeting was over I wouldn’t be kept anywhere without a warrant.

  8. ChristineH*

    Thank you as always, Alison, for these great postings! I especially appreciate the post regarding questions to ask at the interview. I wish I had that list before all of my previous jobs, although knowing me, I probably STILL would’ve put myself in a Bad Fit job! For the last case in particular, I always put my reservations down to not wanting to come across as picky, and gave it a shot anyway. It was a very interesting job, but it turned out to not be a good fit with my time management skills and personality.

  9. Student*

    I really wish this was how the world worked, but in my experience it doesn’t reflect reality. I’ve seen a lot of people get ahead in their careers by doing the exact opposite of your advice in #1 – #7. I’ll certainly agree that #8 is not going to help you in any workplace.

    Maybe I’m just jaded at this point, but in the last 10 years at this job, I can think of numerous counterexamples to these points. I can’t think of any real examples of someone rising through the ranks by embracing these points. I share your world philosophy and I wish the working world was more egalitarian, but my attempts to embrace these points earlier in my career have frankly held me back. Especially #4 – I’m looking for a job, and all I hear is that you gotta know somebody first. Quality of work is secondary to personal connections and schmoozing in my field – to the point where hiring managers will stand up at a career panel and say that outright. I wish I’d spent less time trying to get my co-workers to chip in or my boss to answer work questions and more time taking them out for drinks and sharing idiotic youtube videos. Maybe then I’d have some real career prospects.

    1. Piper*

      Student, I feel your pain.

      My husband got a job transfer to a new city and I was basically frozen out of a whole city’s worth of jobs (all at Fortune 50s, 100s or 500s) because I didn’t know anyone and my quality of work isn’t the main focus. I got one offer for some crappy entry level job and was told that’s just how it was if you didn’t know anyone in this city; you had to work your way up. Sorry, but after 10 years, I’ve already “worked my way up.” I’m not about to do it again.

      And after hearing this from my multiple people at multiple companies, I threw in the towel with even trying to find anything there. Fortunately, for me, my husband got a promotion and we’re moving to a different city this summer that doesn’t seem to have this “must know someone” requirement.

      1. Thomas*

        Piper, I’d be very interested to know where this “you’ve got to know somebody” city is…so I can avoid it like the plague. ;-)

        1. Piper*

          LOL! I’d rather not out it on a public message board (for the sake of my own anonymity), but yeah…I heard it not only from employers, but from recruiters and people who live there (both natives and transplants). It was the number one thing I heard about getting a job there. Horrendous. Oh, and my husband who got a job there? He knew someone.

          1. Dan*

            I’ve heard Seattle is like this. I love it here, but I don’t look forward to having to look for work here.

            1. Evan the College Student*

              Interesting. I got offered two internships in Seattle this summer. For one of them, I was referred by one of my professors, who knew a recruiter there, so it might count. But the other one, I wasn’t referred to at all.

              Of course, these were both just internships – maybe the situation’s different with regular jobs?

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Stuff like this varies widely depending on your field. I used to live in Seattle and didn’t find this at all — it’s very field-dependent.

  10. Anonymous*

    I was in an interview a while ago that was going pretty well and I decided to ask the question about ‘do you have any reservations about my candidacy?’ I had seen Alison recommend it, and other successful professionals I know have recommended it as well.

    The interviewer (a senior-level practitioner/manager in my field) did not know what to do with that. He got really flustered and couldn’t answer anything at all and the interview took a distinct turn for the ‘get you out of here right now’ direction.

    I was formally rejected the next day.

    My conclusion: be careful where you use that question. It’s very powerful.

    I think you have to be careful about using it.

  11. Anonymous*

    Relevant to #2 and #4 but slightly different–keep your work life and social life separate. This was the biggest mistake I made out of school at my first job. I was in a new city, my office had a pretty active social culture (regular happy hours, it was actually a bit of a drunk culture), so I did all my socializing after work hours with my coworkers, usually right across the street from work. We all complain about our bosses and/or coworkers to our friends, but my only friends were my coworkers, and as you might imagine things got around sometimes, and even when they didn’t I had gotten far too immersed in the office politics and gossip. Even though this made me popular with my peers (everyone knew I was the person to go to if they needed information about an office political situation, and our mutual affection meant we did a lot of interdepartmental favors for each other), it didn’t win me any points with upper management and my work situation became increasingly toxic and hostile as they racked their brains trying to figure out how to fire me when I wasn’t technically doing anything wrong–just being a PITA employee with a bad attitude.

    1. Dan*

      I don’t know that I agree that work life and social life have to necessarily be separate. I’ve done socializing and even dating coworkers thing and I’ve done the work / social life separation thing and either will work if you behave yourself. I found the later is more dreadful and the work less interesting.

      It’s probably more important to avoid “being a PITA employee with a bad attitude.”

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