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Diane Davies is founder of Toronto-based executive-coach firm Davies and Associates.

When Linda feels threatened by someone, she attacks them verbally. When Robert is dealing with a technology problem that could shut the business down, he won’t listen to any new ideas. When Bev is asked a question by a superior, she becomes vague. These people are composites of clients I’ve worked with, but I have noticed a pattern.

Different behaviours, same underlying issue.

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You wouldn’t think it, meeting these accomplished people, but these are their coping mechanisms for their insecurity. And this inner saboteur can have career-limiting effects.

These are real people I have worked with. Their stories are repeated many times in many different kinds of organizations. But it is possible to root out your inner saboteur.

First, their stories, then what we can learn.

Real stories

Linda, a highly competent supply chain executive, works for an American-owned retail organization. She is very articulate, credentialed and has a commanding presence when she enters the room. When Linda feels threatened, particularly by a peer, her sabotaging behaviour would be to lash out. She would have no compunction to ridicule ideas and make it very clear that her colleague’s competence was not something she respected.

As we worked together it became obvious that, as incredibly accomplished as she was, she was equally incredibly insecure. She masked her insecurities at all costs. Management kept her, as she was technically exceptional, but she didn’t have a friend or ally among her colleagues as she was known to be very difficult.

Robert works for a major communications company specializing in crisis management deployment. He and his team are regularly called in the middle of the night when technology issues threaten to shut the business down. Robert was highly autocratic in his style. When he felt threatened or stressed, his sabotaging behaviour was to be extremely top-down in his communication. He had no tolerance for any mistake or for innovative thinking. What was done in the past was the way to approach the current situation. His employees were terrified of him and only told him what they thought he wanted to hear. This created more complex problems and ultimately heightened risks for both Robert and the company.

Bev, a young, highly accomplished IT analyst, froze in the company of superiors. Although she was bright and had a record of accomplishments, she developed a sabotaging behaviour of never answering a question directly if it came from a superior. And, in doing presentations, she was so cautious that she was perceived as robotic. Taking a risk or exercising any innovation was next to impossible as her fear of making a mistake or being wrong paralyzed her. The irony is that she was perceived as highly political as she spoke in an incredibly cautious manner. The truth was she was almost continuously terrified of failure and potential termination.

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Ask yourself

How to recognize when you might be in danger of sabotaging yourself:

Backfiring behaviours come from inside voices that sound like: “I can’t do this,” “ I don’t belong here," “I’m going to be exposed as an imposter,” “I’m not as bright as I need to be” and on and on. This voice has no value or purpose except to offer familiarity under stress.

Self-sabotaging behaviour is real and universal. We have all participated in sabotaging behaviours to varying degrees particularly when we feel threatened.

These behaviours will limit success.

What to do

Before you start doing anything about it, ask yourself how prepared you are to change. Because it means a consistent vigilance against a behaviour that has been well entrenched over the years.

Once you're ready to make a change, here are six steps that have helped people I've worked with:

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  1. Familiarize yourself with the signs. Examine three or four situations where you have lost it: What is your pattern? What do you actually do (scream, withdraw, manipulate, become defensive)?
  2. Identify the triggers. There is something that scares you that brings out the saboteur. What is it – fear of failure? exposure? self-doubt? not belonging?
  3. Become aware of what happens in your body when you are going into this sabotaging behaviour (becoming very red, sweaty palms, palpitations, speaking too much or too little).
  4. Begin to recognize the familiar thoughts that go through your head (this guy is out to get me, I’m not going to be able to make this work, I don’t trust her).
  5. Once you are able to see where you’re heading, take a breath and consciously choose whether this is really what you want to do. For instance, if, like Linda, you tend to become aggressive, force yourself to respond to comments less emotionally. If, like Rob, you tend to become controlling, force yourself to delegate more. If, like Bev, you are terrified of exposing yourself, force yourself to voice an opinion. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, and you may find that role playing or brainstorming with a mentor or coach helps.
  6. Practise, practise and practise some more. This takes time.

If you’re serious about changing the behaviour, it’s helpful to think of it as an ever-lurking enemy that happens to be part of you. Enemies cannot be ignored, they need to be managed.

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