5 mistakes smart people make at work

You might be the smartest and most capable person on your team at work – but that doesn’t always mean that your career will go well. Smart people make serious workplace mistakes too, ones that can have lasting implications for their careers.

Here are five mistakes smart people can be in danger of making at work.

1. Not understanding what your boss values most. It doesn’t matter how great you are at doing any particular one thing if your boss’s priorities lie elsewhere. You might be great at, say, building relationships with customers and might pour loads of time into doing it well, but if your boss is judging the success of your role exclusively by how quickly you process sales orders, you could end up falling short of that mark. Too often, people are out of sync with their boss about which pieces of their performance matter most and are frustrated when they don’t get recognition for doing a good job on X when their boss wants Y.

2. Shutting down the first time you fail. If you’re going to advance in your career, you’re going to have to take on new challenges and some of them will be tough. But if you’re used to being “the smart one” and things have always come easily too you, you might not have built up the skills you need for when things are hard, like persevering in the face of obstacles and working hard to master something. You might take failure at a new type of project or responsibility as a sign that you’re not cut out to do it, instead of putting the energy and time in working to get better at it – whereas someone who has always had to work hard at doing well and who therefore has developed more “perseverance muscle” than you will often be inclined to simply practice and practice until they eventually master the new skill. Related to that…

3. Taking feedback badly. If you’re accustomed to doing high-quality work and having it well-received, it can rattle you to receive criticism – after all, you don’t have much practice at it!  But getting upset or defensive when you’re told that your work could use improvement will make you appear less than professional, and it can prevent people from wanting to give you useful feedback in the future. Remember, even people who are the best in their fields don’t get it right every time … and they’re probably where they are in part because they welcomed input, rather than letting it bother them.

4. Underestimating the importance of relationships with coworkers. When you’re good at what you do, it can be easy to think that that’s all that matters. But the reality is that relationships matter quite a bit too. You don’t have to be close friends with your coworkers, but asking about someone’s kids or hobbies or dog and not tuning it out every time everyone else is talking about their weekends can go a long way toward humanizing you. And that makes getting things done a little bit easier the next time you need last-minute help or candid feedback on a proposal or the inside scoop on how internal transfers really work.

5. Thinking that doing great work trumps general decency and politeness. This can be common among star performers with big egos and difficult personalities. Their work might be good enough that they get away with temper tantrums, alienating colleagues, or neglecting workplace niceties for a while, but good workplaces won’t put up with it for long. And even when a workplace does tolerate it, that person is going to get a reputation for being hard to work with, which will make it harder to get the jobs they want in the future. Good managers won’t tolerate boorish behavior on their teams, even from top performers.

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

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    “Thinking that doing great work trumps general decency and politeness. ”

    Oh this. So much this. I used to have someone on my team who was really smart, really hardworking, and great at the technical aspects of her job. But she was just hell on wheels. Her interpersonal skills were appalling. I spent more time fixing messes she made and smoothing over ruffled feathers. I tried disciplinary measures with her, training, etc. None of it stuck. I eventually moved her to a position elsewhere where she doesn’t have to interact with people as much.

    She’s destroying her own career but seems to either not care or unable to stop it. It’s sad to see with someone so competent, but she’s just awful. I’d rather have someone half as smart but with better people skills any day.

    1. Jamie*

      Yes. The better you are and the rarer your skill set the more slack you’ll get…but it’s not infinite.

      1. annie*

        I’m dealing with this now with a coworker. It’s in no way ideal, but I think you can be great at your job and hard to work with, or bad at your job and easy to work with, but you can’t be both bad and your job AND hard to work with.

        1. Jill of All Trades*

          Sorry Annie, I have had the co-worker who was *really* bad at their job (4 years without a basic comprehension – how’s that for quality management?) and really hard to deal with because of a terrible, superior attitude. They exist.

        2. Jen RO*

          I knew (of) someone who was both. After being coached and being shuffled around the company in various team, he was finally let go.

    2. ChristineSW*

      It really is sad. This part in Alison’s article reminded me a coworker at a previous job. At first, she wasn’t the most attentive to accuracy, but after a while, she got really good really fast, even becoming the lead for our team. Problem was, she and I did NOT get along well, and I think even others weren’t crazy about her strong personality.

      I’m just so glad I’ve never been a “people” manager–I don’t think I’d ever be able to deal with someone who is really good at what they do, but has a difficult personality. I don’t know how you did it, Katie.

      1. Sharm*

        That’s the number one reason I think I can never move into management! I just can’t deal with strong personalities. I suppose I am demonstrating #2 here, because I had a HORRIBLE experience the first time I had to manage someone. They eventually moved to another team and I managed two other people who were just wonderful and easy to manage. But the bad experience looms over my head and I think I’m just not cut out for it.

          1. Sharm*

            I guess people who are combative, stubborn, unwilling to compromise. Maybe “strong personality” is the wrong term, but generally those people who feel they are always right and know more than everybody else. Those who always have to get their way, even if we have a directive from upper management to do it differently.

      2. Katie the Fed*

        The best thing I learned was not to take it personally. I read a book called Difficult People at Work or something along those lines and it explained that people like this are just focused on getting stuff done and they view other people as impediments. So when I saw it from that perspective it was a little easier. But mostly, I drank. And cried.

    3. MR*

      I hope that somewhere in that disciplinary measures/training/etc., you spelled out to her exactly what she was doing wrong. Otherwise, it was all a disservice and she may be getting confused and frustrated at this point…

  2. Rachel*

    It was very difficult for me to learn how to take criticism professionally when I first started working.

    In school, I was used to all A’s. When I did get a question incorrect, I was one of those annoying students who would argue with the teacher or professor.

    Needless to say, my first boss at a professional job didn’t appreciate the arguing and defensive stance. I had to learn how to listen to criticism, thank them for the opportunity to improve, and really work on following the instructions. I still shared my suggestions on different ways to complete tasks, but not in that moment.

    1. some1*

      I just think in general it’s hard to get out of that “I’m being called into the principal’s office” mentality no matter what kind of student you were.

    2. Julie*

      Some of the most useful criticism I got from a manager was hard to take at the time. I was moving to a new job, from one coast to another, within the same organization, and I was young and scared. I was having a getting-to-know-you phone conversation with my new boss before I left for the new location, and as she was telling me about the work and the people involved, my attitude was that I already knew everything. She didn’t say anything right away, but at the end of our call, she said that it would be really helpful to my success in the job if I was open to learning from other people. She said that if I acted as though I already knew everything, no one would bother to teach me anything new. I took it to heart and worked really hard to listen and learn and to stop being defensive. It was hard, but I think it was worth the effort, and I appreciate the feedback. It probably wasn’t easy for her to say that to someone she barely knew.

    1. some1*

      Actually, the “Thinking that doing great work trumps general decency and politeness” folks I have worked with were all over 40.

  3. Parcae*

    Let me guess, you came up with this list by secretly videotaping my first two years in the workforce?


  4. fposte*

    I recently had kind of a revelation about #2. Persevering doesn’t mean not *minding* failure or limited success–you (okay, I) can still be miserable and self-blamey and anxious about things that go wrong and even temporarily give up in your own mind. You just have to get a good night’s sleep, sigh heavily, and tackle it all again.

    (I thought all these people who talked about the value of failure had never been daunted by failure, so I hadn’t really found a model where you could be daunted but still persevere.)

    1. Ollie*

      I’m like you! When I fail/make mistakes, I have temporary “shut-downs” because I’m really hard on myself and fall into a everything-is-hopeless-pessimistic mood easily, but I bounce back after a day, evaluate what I learned and practice/keep going.

  5. Also anonymous*

    One of my closest friends recently lost out on a promotion because he’s consistently late to work. He routinely works 14-hour days and manages real miracles at work, and is well-liked, but because he is 15-20 minutes late regularly, his boss told him they picked a less qualified candidate. Ouch. So I think that fits in with number one – the priority is his butt in the chair (it’s an office job) more than the results. Which is frustrating. And he’s fixed the timeliness issue, but it was only brought to him as a problem along with the notification that he didn’t get the promotion.

    1. Sharm*

      That’s a bummer. Was it not possible for your friend to have realized the lateness issue ahead of time? Or was he told before, but he didn’t think it was a big deal until he lost the promotion because of it?

      1. Also anonymous*

        His boss said that as long as his work got done and he was there within an hour of the start time, it was no problem. Then his boss left the company (about a month ago) and the new boss never said a word until the promotions were announced, with a word about it to him privately. This week.

        1. Sharm*

          That seems pretty crappy to me. If you’re not even given a chance to improve, how is that fair?

          Sorry about your friend. :-\

          1. dejavu2*

            Yeah, that’s bs. I’m about 15 minutes late to work every day. No one has ever said anything to me about it, though, because I’m a high performer, stay here late into the night after everyone else has left, work weekends, etc. The fact no one’s said anything about it over the course of a year has lead me to believe no one cares. If I was suddenly denied a promotion or a raise or something because of it, I’d be livid.

            1. dejavu2*

              And, frankly, it’s stupid. If you don’t have the kind of job where you *need* to be on time (like relieving a shift, driving a bus, ringing the bell at the stock market, your coworkers need you to be physically present), that’s a really dumb reason to promote a less competent employee.

    2. Legal jobs*

      Reading the thread, I would say to your friend to make certain that this is the real reason versus the stated reason.

      I think there is too much faith here that decisions are made on the up and up.

      Sadly, they are not.

      Its important to understand the promotional chancres in the future by knowing whether the stated reason is the real one.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah, ditto from me. I was denied a promotion once because I would not climb on ladders. That is insubordination, I was told. Meanwhile a coworker said “Promote her, and I will do all her ladder work for her.” (We are talking about once a month at most.)

        When the promotion did not go through, I decided to find the real reason. The real reason was because I was married and probably would not move across the country for what they were paying me.

        Yeah, they could have just asked me if I was willing to move. grrr. I never understood all the under handedness

  6. Sharm*

    I’ve been working for about 8 years now, and I’m heartened about the reaction to #5. We had a couple of folks like that within my department at one of my past jobs, and I always thought that because their productivity/talent for the job was so much better than everyone else, they were more valued than us.

    Of course, that wasn’t the case! We lost so much productivity and time in dealing with the constant battles, tears, fights. It was utterly bizarre, looking back on it. I think it was hard for our organization to fire them for whatever reason, so we had to wait until the left before things started getting better.

  7. Elizabeth West*

    The feedback one, yes yes.

    Writers will ALWAYS get feedback. I wrote a blog post on this (I can’t remember which one now), the difference between constructive feedback and nasty criticism. Sometimes, people can’t tell the difference. Maybe it’s because they only got praise when they should have gotten guidance, maybe someone decimated them early on and they’re conditioned to react to it defensively, etc.

    With artistic / creative feedback, it feels personal. You put your heart and soul into your book and anyone saying your baby isn’t perfect can cause unimaginable pain. Well, any writer who reacts to all his/her feedback this way isn’t going to last long, because editors and your first readers are there to give you exactly that. You can learn to tell the difference between people saying “This needs work; here’s why,” which is good feedback, and some yahoo saying “This sucks; how come there aren’t any explosions in it?”* It’s not always that blatant, either.

    My tip was this: if the person is telling you it sucks, try to find out why they think that (politely!). If they can’t say, chances are it’s just their opinion, which is fine. Let them have it. If more than one person is saying the same thing, you need to go back and rework whatever they’re criticizing.

    The same is true for any work project you’ve put a ton of effort into.

    *FWIW, I always put explosions in there somewhere. :)

    1. Yup*

      “If they can’t say, chances are it’s just their opinion, which is fine.”

      This is such an important distinction. All opinions are not created equal: an *informed* opinion is much more useful than an uninformed one. I think we as a society are falsely in a mindset that everyone needs be heard about everything all the time, and that’s not just not reasonable/practical/helpful.

    2. Zelos*

      +1 Oh man, this.

      Recently, my editor for my group project got back to me with a slew of edits and thoughts. I had a lot, because my section for the project was arguably the longest. She made sure to reassure me I did a really good job, and–in a separate, private email–said I could call her if I have any questions or qualms. I think she was afraid she had hurt my feelings.

      I actually sat there blinking at my computer for a good five minutes before I wrote back “No worries, I’ll have your edits back within two hours.” I write as a hobby, and I get the defensive reaction (I really do), but bristling at anything that isn’t glowing feedback doesn’t help you grow. It’s perspective if nothing else.

      (Although I think part of it is that I’m one of the youngest in the class. My age works against me sometimes. Then again, three years ago I would’ve reacted very differently, so maybe it was a justified precaution.)

      1. Ollie*

        Whenever I’ve had to give feedback on writing (for school, work or informal things) I always reassured the writer that they did a good job and tried to point out specific things they did well (unless they actually did a horrible job—not gonna lie to them). It’s easier to take constructive criticism when you feel like you’re making something okay/good better than when you feel like you’re making something crappy into something that’s tolerable.

        1. Zelos*

          Oh, I understand the reasoning behind it. She stepped up to the plate as the team lead because no one was volunteering, and she’s doing an excellent job. (This reminds me: I should tell her that. :D)

          I was just a little taken aback because I thought the private email was a little…excessive?…on the reassurance front. Don’t get me wrong; I am more used to people taking apart my work than I was a few years ago, but even now, the “you did a good job! Here’s some things to work on” sandwiching thing is still appreciated. The private email and the offer to talk it out via phone just made me blink and think to myself “wow, my ego’s not that fragile.”

          But all in all, I can’t even consider this a quibble. She’s really doing a wonderful job as team lead. And again…three years ago my reaction might’ve been rather different, so it was a good precaution to take. I guess that is a hallmark of a good leader: to adjust the style to the person she’s speaking to.

    3. Mints*

      Giving helpful feedback is a skill. One of the most important silks for teachers in writing-intensive courses. In school, whenever we had peer review sessions, the teacher would usually need to give us phrases to start with (this would be stronger if… This is unclear to me because…) Learning how to take criticism is a skill too!

    1. Cajun2core*

      Regretfully though if someone is brining in hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in grant money, you can get away with pretty much anything.

      1. kdizzle*

        +1 Indeed. I had a professor walk into my office and start eating my sandwich without my permission.

        Instead of psycho and intrusive, I get told that the person is eccentric and brilliant.

        W.T. actual F.

        1. Ollie*

          “I had a professor walk into my office and start eating my sandwich without my permission.”


          I’m having trouble comprehending how someone could actually do this. How did you react? Was the sandwich half-eaten already?

          1. kdizzle*

            It had to be a totally visceral reaction because no normal person expects something like that to happen.

            The sandwich was in halves. I was eating the other half when he picked up the uneaten half and took a bite.

            I said, “What the hell is the matter with you?”

            He said it looked like I was finished.

            I told him to get out of my office because I was about to hop on a conference call. I was almost certain I was on a hidden camera show.

            1. Ollie*

              Wow. o_o

              You handled it much better than I would have. (I would have stared in horrified shock and then stammered something like, “Uh, what are you doing? That’s mine.”)

            2. Grace*

              I once had a managing partner do that to me. I put out my hand and said, “$20 please. You just got a catered lunch – mine! And now I have to go buy lunch.” When peoples’ lunch would turn up missing I would say, “Go to [managing partner’s office] and tell him he needs to give you $20 because he ate your lunch.” Worked like a charm.

  8. Mike C.*

    #2 is a huge one for me, and has been all my life. My mother tells a story about me trying to walk for the first time. I fell and did try it again for a long while. The idea that things take work to be good at, rather than having a natural talent is a source of imposter syndrome as well.

    #1: What do you mean you don’t want a full statistical analysis of this data? No R or P values, no hypothesis testing, just a short data table? I’m just glad the boss in question was patient enough to sit down and explain this to me.

  9. JMegan*

    The problem with #5 is that it does work sometimes – think Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, both famous jerks who made tons of money because that they were so fabulously talented that people *did* put up with their personalities. Dr House on tv is another one.

    So there are models out there. And some people see those examples, and think “well if Steve Jobs could get away with it, so can I!” Except, of course, that most of us are not Steve Jobs, and are not going to make as much money as he did regardless of our personalities. And it takes a certain amount of self-awareness to realize that – which I think, by definition, is a key quality that is lacking in people who behave like this.

    1. Yup*

      People also attribute the success to the jerkiness. As in, those people became successful *because* of their abrasive jerky manners so therefore I should steamroll people too because that’s how successful winners act in getting to the top. They forget to factor in all the costs along the way that aren’t visible from the outside.

    2. Katie*

      Mark Zuckerberg had the advantage of going from undergrad at Harvard to being the boss- and I feel like it costs those at the top of the food chain FAR less career-wise to be jerks. Moral of the story: wait until you’re boss to be a terrible person ;).

    3. S.A.*

      Steve Jobs bossed Wozniak around and he was the man behind the tech at Apple – NOT Jobs. Jobs is the guy who pitched fits and made people miserable until he got what he wanted. By all accounts anyone who has had any contact with him couldn’t stand him. That is no way to run a company. I still think Zuckerberg stole the twin’s idea, particularly with exclusivity on his network that datamines from people and sells their information to corporations.

      Needless to say, I’m not a fan or user of products made by either company.

  10. Gala*

    Ouch! So true! I’m kind of cringing at the criticism one, as I just got some feedback on it, and it turns out I’m not hiding my negative reactions as well as I thought!

  11. Marilla*

    I would add coasting on previous work as a potential pitfall for star performers too – you might do amazing, successful work on a project and put in long hours on it, but then when it’s done be tempted to slack off for a while and coast on your reputation a little bit. While I think it’s ok after an intense project to spend a couple of weeks doing easier work (correspondence, paperwork, background research) to allow yourself to catch a breath, it’s easy to let that slide out a little bit too long.

  12. Not So NewReader*

    Just curious. What does everyone think constructive criticism looks like?
    Do you remember someone telling you something that was difficult to listen to but they said something that brought you down from the ceiling and helped you digest the inputs?

    1. Leslie Yep*

      Each person likely has their own set of preferences that dictate how they best hear critical feedback, so I think knowing that about yourself is valuable.

      For me for example, I hate “criticism sandwiches”–putting positive feedback on each side of a constructive comment. It just feels condescending to me, but it really reassures others! I prefer direct, clear communication about what isn’t meeting expectations and the implications for our work if those aren’t immediately clear. I also appreciate hearing whether this is a one-time mistake or part of a pattern of poor or concerning performance so I can adjust my approach accordingly.

      If you can identify what that “on the ceiling” feeling is for you, that might help you know what you most need from your manager when getting feedback. Mine is mostly disappointment in myself, so I need more information to understand why my approach failed. If you’re someone who feels a lot of shame about mistakes, you probably do want that criticism sandwich to be assured that you are still valued and that your work overall is still strong.

      1. Feed Fido*

        Hate the sandwich too. Makes me suspect of any praise, just waiting for the crap middle. It’s weasley too. There’s a way to talk about issues and problems and not resort to games.

        1. tcookson*

          I don’t like the criticism sandwich either, because it feels like the praise is the fake part that the person made up to hide the real part in. I just want them to tell me the real part. My boss is pretty good at delivering both criticism and praise straight-up, so when he praises me, I believe him. When he delivers criticism, he’s always direct but respectful, and he ends on an encouraging note (not with any crafty praise, but with genuine encouragement; I always end a meeting with him feeling that there’s a positive way forward from any mistake I’ve made).

      2. Anon #2*

        The “criticism sandwich” was helpful for me when working in location that had very little praise offered.

        With that being said, I’m now working in a location where specific praise is offered (much better than generic!). Being in this environment makes it so the times when constructive feedback is offered, it’s much easier to receive it as it’s own conversation, without the “bread”! :-)

    2. Nichole*

      To me, constructive criticism is distinguished by two factors: can I do something with it and was it delivered with genuine helpful intent. The rule of “is it kind, true, and necessary” seems to be a good guideline. I’m not sure which advice columnist gets the credit for that one, but I use it regularly before deciding whether I should say anything critical.

      1. De Minimis*

        That is key for me…give me tools to correct the issue, don’t just talk about what I’m doing wrong.

  13. ThursdaysGeek*

    #6 Thinking that just doing great work will be rewarded.

    You can do the right work very well, with a good attitude, making your co-workers happy that you’re on their team. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get any better raise, or ever get paid as much as some of the mediocre workers around you. Your company will be happy to get great work for such a good price. If you don’t speak up, they’ll think you’re happy with what you’re getting. (Not that speaking up always helps either…)

    1. S.A.*

      … or if you do speak up you get ripped apart for it. I’ve been there and done that.

      Excellent one to point out. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Jess*

    #1 could also have pigeonholing problems. Being known as “the X person” even if you are good at Y…

  15. Anon #2*

    Yikes. #1, #2, and #3 all ring as far too true in my past.

    Thank goodness for personal growth – far less of an issue in receiving constructive feedback. :-)

  16. Jen M.*

    Eeek! I’m guilty of 2, 3, and 4! :( Fortunately, I am aware of that, and I’m working really hard to get better at handling all three issues, even now that I am unemployed. I have started to really step back from all of my tasks and all of my exchanges and really try to SEE where my sore spots are.

    When I find my next job, I REALLY want it to be a good experience, because my last one was a DISASTER (not only my fault, but I recognize where I could have done better.)

  17. Blessed*

    Alison – You have done a great job in summing up the issues in a job – the slideshow is just about perfect. Just like common sense is not so common – good managers are difficult to happen. I feel blessed to have started off on my own and found success – for other people who meet the real life characters from your slideshow I hope they come across your blog!

  18. S.A.*

    #1. They valued butt kissing over competency and I left the company. They lost a lot of really good people and have cemented a terrible reputation by paying awful butt kissers a lot while treating the best employees like slaves.

    Yep, a great way to run off your most talented employees is to show you value butt kissing over a hard core work ethic.

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