The Science of Career Success

For the last twenty-plus years, we’ve studied the most influential and respected employees in more than 50 companies across dozens of industries. As we observed these people clamoring to climb the corporate ladder, we discovered a few startling trends. One of the most disconcerting: 87 percent of the employees we surveyed said they have bosses who have prevented them from getting the pay, promotions or other opportunities they wanted because of a concern they’ve had about their performance. Conversely, managers are equally frustrated. More than half say they have employees who are stuck at performance levels that are below their potential.

As we compiled our research for our book “Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success,” we uncovered some ways to help managers take a career that’s stuck or off the rails and get it back on track.

As the research reveals, employees who face performance problems have both a knowing problem and an influence problem. In fact, 70 percent of employees who were aware that their boss was unhappy with their performance, couldn’t tell you what they were doing wrong or how they were going to change it.


how-to-achieve-professional-successThe Change Anything approach empowers employees to take control of their own career path by teaching them the knowledge and tools to change their behavior and improve their performance.

Solving the Knowing Problem

In our study of top performers we asked thousands of employees (including managers) to give us the names of the three people in their organizations whose opinions, work habits and abilities they most admired. We were looking for the “go-to” people.

Next, we closely observed these highly valued individuals. We analyzed the behaviors they routinely practiced that made them so valued and found that top performers practice the same three vital behaviors: they know their stuff, focus on the right stuff and build a reputation for being helpful.

1. Know their stuff: Top performers put regular effort into ensuring they are good at the technical aspects of their jobs. They work hard at honing their craft.

2. Focus on the right stuff: In addition to performing their craft well, top performers contribute to tasks that are essential to the organization’s success. Top performers work on their skill set and their access to critical tasks the company values.

3. Build a reputation for being helpful: Top employees are widely known and respected by others not because of their frequent contact, charm or likability, but because they help others solve their problems.

Solving the Influence Problem

While the behaviors are straightforward, employees won’t necessarily be able to adopt them. That’s what we call the influence problem. Knowing what behaviors are required to get a career back on track is only the first step, next comes implementation.

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. It turns out there is an exponentially more successful approach to influence change.

Apply Six-Source Strategies

There are six sources of influence that explain why we make the choices we do.

Employees will never have enough willpower to change because so many other sources of influence are stacked against them. If employees don’t understand how additional sources of influence, such as the environment and their social circles, affect their behavior, then the sources will work against them—combating their best efforts to change.

However, if the six sources of influence can get us to behave in dysfunctional and ineffective ways, it is also true that we can marshal these same sources of influence to make positive habits inevitable. Below are powerful strategies within the six sources of influence.

1. Flash forward to the future: When you hit a motivational wall while changing your work habits, motivate yourself by visiting your default future — the life you’ll have if you are repeatedly passed up for promotion. Think of the money you’ll lose and opportunities you’ll miss.

2. Invest in professional development: New habits always require new skills. Actively develop the skills you need to be viewed as a top performer. Then apply your new skills and seek feedback from an expert.

3. Hang with the hard-workers: The bad attitudes and habits that keep you back are likely being enabled, tolerated or encouraged by others. Use positive peer pressure by surrounding yourself with hard-working friends who share your career goals. Distance yourself from the office slackers and water cooler conversations.

4. Find a mentor: Changing habits requires help. Find a trusted mentor to encourage your progression and help you navigate the career development opportunities that exist within the organization.

5. Put skin in the game: Reward yourself for reaching short-term goals by placing money at risk. For example, if you reach your goal in your next performance review you can purchase a reward with the money you set aside. However, if you fall short, the money goes to support the political party you oppose.

6. Control your workspace: Make your new habits easier by enlisting the power of your surroundings. If you’d benefit from close association with another team, ask to move offices. When possible, turn off electronic interruptions that keep you from being as productive as you need to be to move ahead.

How to Change Anything

From our research we discovered once employees know what they should do to improve their career and understand how to influence change through engaging all six sources of influence, they are ten times more successful. In contrast to many studies that show modest differences of 10 to 20 percent when using various interventions, this study revealed the physics of human change. When your strategy is informed by good science, the differences in effectiveness are not incremental, they are exponential.

The truth is training managers can help employees get their careers on track simply by understanding how behavior works and helping employees create a multifaceted change plan. When we escape the willpower trap and develop competence in engaging all six sources of influence, we can change ourselves and influence others for good.

About Author: David Maxfield is a behavior change expert, co-author of the New York Times best-sellers Influencer and Change Anything, and vice president of research at VitalSmarts.