Self sabotage is a human hazard that has limited, sidetracked and ruined many a career and personal life. Organizations are not immune either from the mindset that allows for damage or destruction. Yet how and why do we allow this to happen?
“I’d suggest that many of the same things that cause success,” says Carlota Zimmerman, a success strategist and career coach, adding “ambition, arrogance, determination and fearlessness, when used without a conscience or any kind of empathy, inevitably lead to self-sabotage.”
Once in motion, it can be difficult to recognize, slow or take the air out of, leading to unimpeded progress towards unwanted or dangerous outcomes.
“If your unchecked determination is what led you to create, for example, an internationally recognized winning brand, when friends and co-workers are telling you to put on the brakes, ah, ‘what the hell do they know? You’re the one who’s a success, right? You do you!’” Zimmerman says.
Success and the benefits that come with it are intoxicating, as has been often reported in the news.
“To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, success is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” Zimmerman says. “In America especially, success negates any and all mistakes. Success forgives all sins. By the time these people start reaping the consequences of their actions, they may genuinely not have the social skills necessary to learn from their mistakes.”
Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Theranos founder and former CEO Elizabeth Holmes and WeWork co-founder and former CEO Adam Neumann, are prime examples of self saboteurs. Yet they are but a few of the many fallen, with more always close to tumbling down their figurative mountain.
Problem solving self sabotage, however, is possible, even if a perplexing challenge.
“An excellent way to reduce one’s own self-sabotage is through self-awareness…eventually you’re going to have to do what everyone does and take responsibility,” Zimmerman says.
That is easier said than done, she’s found, as taming ego might be a task long forgotten or never tackled.
“Successful people, when confronted with a pattern of self-deception, i.e. self-sabotage, will ask for the tools to learn and make hard choices. Unsuccessful people, ‘Oh, I’ll just walk it off,’” she says.
Within an organizational context, boards of directors can conduct smarter risk management, Zimmerman says, with wise preventive measures.
“Boards may want to consider writing into the operating agreement various situations for when it can demand that difficult people take a back seat, get mental health support or at least temporarily remove themselves from day-to-day operations,” she says.
It’s critical to learn and know how an executive might be conducting themselves and not allow enabling. The risks are just too high to ignore or tolerate self sabotage that is often connected to organizational damage.
Zimmerman also has a story to share, humbly telling her own of struggle, using it as an example.
“Once you’re left alone, ostracized, even temporarily from your fiefdom, reality has a way of hitting home. In my own small business, during some of the worst years, when I couldn’t seem to get traction with the type of clients and events that I believed I’d be perfect for, I was forced to look in the mirror and make some very hard changes,” Zimmerman says.
Self awareness and responsibility eventually emerged.
“I remember saying to myself,” ‘you idiot, did you make all those sacrifices to lose this business to your rotten ego?’”
As is common, friends were well meaning and not always helpful in the direction she needed assistance.
“I had friends who were quick to assure me that I was doing everything right, but the proof was in my bank account or lack thereof,” Zimmerman says.
Organizations may not be able to solve problems internally, as sometimes what’s needed is outside their vast scope of competence.
“For larger businesses, this might be an excellent opportunity to hire an outside consultant with no loyalty to anyone in the company who has the poise and presence of mind to speak to the loose cannon or cannons and make them understand that their self-sabotage is now beginning to become company-sabotage,” Zimmerman says.
This is critical counsel to heed.
“We have to realize that for many CEOs and founders, at a certain point, the company’s identity, and theirs becomes one and the same, and the only way to stop the bleeding is to make it clear that soon there will not be any company left to sabotage,” she says.
Zimmerman sees common threads where dangerous leadership behavior is present or thriving.
“Many organizations and individuals with a pattern of destruction and self-sabotage are missing empathy and bravery,” she asserts.
Zimmerman believes that within successful business, the environment is ripe for self-destructive thinking and behavior, because of what it doesn’t require, yet often benefits from practicing.
“Many of these people will never learn because they have no reason to learn because in America becoming a success largely means you don’t have to have empathy,” she says.
She doesn’t believe it’s hopeless for people or organizations in the grips of self sabotage.
“The best of these people however, who can change because we all can change, will understand viscerally how their actions have hurt others, and therefore themselves. They will change because they want to,” Zimmerman says. “And yes, it’s hard work. It’s hard work to put others first, to understand that your actions have consequences, that people will turn away from you, that ultimately how you see yourself may be very different from how those around you see you.”
She ends with a sobering warning in form of a question for continuing to walk a treacherous path of reckless thinking and behavior, without adjusting course.
“That ultimately you are not the person you always wanted to be; instead, who, or what, have you become?”