What are your Professional Demons?

I’ve been working on my professional development this year and I identified a pattern in the challenges I faced at work.

There were always the same themes that came up time and again. They seemed to be hindering my development and getting in my way.

Working with leadership coach, Richard Hughes-Jones, I noticed the themes of our sessions were all things that had come up before in my professional life. And they were likely things that would come up again in future.

They were the things that I personally find difficult to deal with at work and are potential barriers holding me back.

I call them my ‘professional demons’.

I think of professional demons as blockers to your professional development and success in the workplace.

I’ve heard similar terms like “confidence gremlins” (from the awesome Amazing If), “development blockers” or “mental barriers”.

This is how I think about professional demons:

Professional demons tend to be unique to each person. There are common demons (eg. perfectionism) that many people will struggle with, but they may show up in different people in different ways. It is likely they show up in your personal life too, but perhaps with different causes or effects.

For me, I identified these professional demons as the things I will need to work on in order to develop into the next stage of my career.

These are the internal challenges holding me back from developing my career and what I have learnt about how to deal with them effectively…

Self-Assertion

This demon made itself known to be by a very circuitous route — through identifying what I thought was a professional demon, but then realising I was looking in the wrong place.

It is sometimes just as helpful to work out what your professional demons are NOT.

I assumed that lack of confidence was my problem.

I’ve read countless articles, blogs and books talking about women being less confident than men (most of them giving advice to women about how to be more confident) so perhaps I internalised and assumed the idea that confidence was my challenge too.

I think this was certainly true early on in my career. A few years ago I was indeed under-confident and didn’t believe my ideas were very good. In fact, sometimes I didn’t believe I had any ideas at all.

But I realised confidence wasn’t really the problem now. I am confident in my abilities, my knowledge and my opinions.

What I don’t do well and find extremely difficult is self-assertion; putting myself out there in the world and making myself heard.

I noticed this leads to a common set of events occurring.

To other people, this looks like a lack of confidence.

So what ends up happening is:

  1. Other people perceive me as under-confident.
  2. That has a knock-on effect on how I feel (especially if I hold those people in high regard or there are high stakes in their opinions) and actually leads to my confidence being knocked. (So lack of confidence becomes a secondary effect but is not actually the root demon here).
  3. Because I am less confident than before, I assert myself even less.

This becomes a vicious cycle whereby the choice to not put myself out into the world leads to me being even less likely to want to do so!

Why do I find this so difficult? Why is self-assertion a professional demon for me?

I think it’s because asserting myself has such a high (perceived) cost compared to the potential benefit.

Firstly, it requires a huge amount of effort and energy to collect my thoughts into a coherent message and then to say or write them down.

I find it difficult to do this on the spot or at the pace at which I am usually having conversations. In general my thoughts are not simple, they’re complex.

And they tend to all come at once, which isn’t helpful when I’m trying to make sense of them before sharing with other people.

Then there’s the worry about how people will react to what I put out in the world.

The potential for disagreement, conflict and knock-on effects on relationships and effectiveness of working with people in future are always in the back of my mind.

I think this is often blown out of proportion in my head, BUT, I have experienced enough negative effects from asserting my ideas to know that they are a real possibility that can hinder future progress in tasks and relationships.

Finally, all the above seems to be a lot more difficult when working remotely.

This year has seen covid-19 force everyone into remote working.

It’s harder to read people’s reactions to my ideas when I’m interacting with them through zoom. I have less frequent interactions as well, given that every interaction has to be pre-scheduled and arranged for a specific purpose.

I actually believe there are positive outcomes from that (related to productivity, collaboration, teamwork), but asserting myself is still a draining activity in that environment.

Everyone is different in their style and interactions in the workplace. It occurred to me that although I became aware of this demon, I still need to decide how much I want to change it and what my desired outcome is.

How to deal with (lack of) self-assertion

  • Decide: what is the level of assertiveness you actually want to have?
  • Trust your inner confidence.
  • Notice the perceptions of others (awareness) and their emotional effect on you.
  • Actively choose how to respond (break the circuit).

Uncertainty

The key question (Richard asked me) is: “How can you sit with uncertainty?”

It’s a great question, because it accepts that uncertainty exists and labels it. When we name things they tend to be less scary.

The question emphasises how you don’t need to ‘solve’ uncertainty as if it’s a problem, or try to make it go away.

It made me realise the first step (as always in coaching) is awareness.

Awareness that uncertainty exists in my environment and awareness of my experience of uncertainty. Awareness of how uncertainty is causing me negative emotions such as anxiety, stress or frustration.

Uncertainty is such an integral part of the working environment for everyone, especially this year.

It has always been a key feature of working in scaling companies, and is particularly important for leaders to be able to face uncertainty with ‘stability of mind’ (one of the most important qualities of a leadership team according to my CEO).

I like having control, freedom and independence within my working life. I actually thought I was ok with an uncertain environment.

I went through a turbulent period of trying to start a business at Entrepreneur First, various consulting projects and unemployment over the past 2 years. I thought I had built up pretty strong resilience to career uncertainty.

What I’ve realised is that there is a difference between uncertainty for the company I work for and uncertainty for me. I don’t mind a company’s strategy and direction, product development, or even financial situation being uncertain.

If anything that presents interesting professional challenges for the work I do in my role.

But the discomfort this year has come from that uncertainty as applied to my situation.

There are constant developments in my role in terms of scope of work, needs of the business and expectations of various stakeholders.

Not knowing or not having clarity on these things was causing some negative emotions which was taking up a lot of energy and thereby reducing my productivity.

Once I realised that and the fact that most of these things were actually outside of my control, it became much easier to live with.

How to deal with uncertainty:

  • Notice uncertainty — be aware of environment and impact on you
  • Be ok with it! >> acceptance
  • meditate once a day or more to develop stability of mind
  • be aware of your span of control (it doesn’t include everything!)
  • ask for clarity if needed (other people can help bring certainty if they have more info than you)

Perfectionism

This is a popular professional (and personal) demon for many people.

Perfectionism is quite broad and I find that the effects can be different for different people in terms of its impact on their professional life.

For me, perfectionism means constantly striving to push everything to a higher level than what is needed.

Often, I have an idea in my head before I start a task of what the completed version of that thing looks like.

I then start the task and try to work towards ultimately reaching that goal.

But often the completed version I am striving towards could be 20% less done, and still complete the job I am trying to do.

If you multiply this across all the tasks I am trying to get done, I am expending too much ‘extra’ task effort than is actually needed.

And the biggest risk is that I am doing it across lots of different tasks in different areas. So I might end up not reaching the minimum required level for a certain task. All because I am trying to push all my other ones to my imagined maximum level!

I received feedback that I have high standards for things that don’t need to be there. And I have been aware of it myself.

So in many ways this is my hardest professional demon to tackle. Often awareness is the first step. Once you are aware of what you are doing and how something is affecting you, it’s easier to start to change it.

But… I am usually very aware of what I am doing with regards to perfectionism. I think through the rationale of why I think something needs to be done a certain way.

So the question is — how can I identify the moments where I am unnecessarily pushing too far?

One suggestion I received is to get more feedback on my work, both in the moment and at the end of a project. Then I can calibrate what I am aiming for against the expectations of others.

The other way I started confronting this demon recently was by stopping caring so much.

Of course, I still care about what I am doing. Maybe a better way of putting it would be: I re-directed my energy.

I have a huge amount of emotional energy to give and put a lot into my work. The trick is to channel it towards places it can be useful, rather than trying to use it in the wrong place. (Or even worse, try and suppress it in the name of “being less emotional”).

And this is where it’s useful having multiple professional roles. Directing this type of energy towards operational tasks in my full-time role might not be the best use of it.

But harnessing it in my coaching sessions with clients in a 1–1 setting helps me stay present. I focus on helping find solutions for those specific people.

Deciding where to focus different types of energy is something I have also been thinking about a lot (More on that in a future post…)

How to deal with perfectionism:

  • Ask for feedback from colleagues on projects — calibrate my aims and expectations against others and see if mine are too high
  • Stop caring! Direct energy to where it’s most needed and appreciated

What are your professional demons?

What do you struggle with at work and what holds you back from developing and/or progressing/being successful in your role?

And do you have any strategies for how to deal with them?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this (and see your own visualisations!)

Comment here or feel free to reach out on LinkedIn to chat about it further!

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Amanda Green

Head of Operations at Unitary | Business and Career Coach. I write on career and business building, personal development and working in tech