THE BLOG
09/19/2014 12:51 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Five Things People Do to Hurt Their Careers -- And How to Stop Doing Them

Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

Happiness within the modern workplace is improving, sure. We talk less about discrimination, and we're getting closer to equal pay regardless of gender. But that doesn't mean that workers are thriving unhindered. The big difference is that these days, the barrier to advancing is more likely to be self-constructed. That's right: Your own worst workplace nemesis is you.

Maybe it's a lack of confidence to demand the salary you're worth or the promotion you deserve. Maybe you're risk-averse, and inclined to hand over the high-profile (and high-visibility) assignments to someone else. Maybe you don't have a mentor. Maybe you aren't a mentor yourself.

But more than ever, each of us is a brand, in competition with other brands, and in order to succeed, it's important to learn to stop getting in your own way; to create your own path. Here are the top worst mistakes modern workers make, and ways to avoid falling prey to the same traps yourself.

1. Not Marketing Yourself

Most people know that marketing is an essential part of moving up in the workplace, and yet they hold back. The reason: They don't want to be seen as bragging about themselves. But there are plenty of ways to further your personal brand -- and to get the recognition -- without grandstanding. The first step is to be sure you can define and understand your brand: what you can offer, who needs to know about you and why. Be clear and direct about the benefits you offer. If you're simply stating the facts -- to the relevant people -- it'll be hard to take that as being needlessly self-promotional. It's only when you talk about your achievements to someone for whom those achievements aren't relevant that you can sound boastful.

Another approach to indirect, non-braggy marketing is to work to be included on the big and difficult projects. Those are the jobs that bring visibility. At the very least, try to be on cross-functional teams and projects so that people outside your workplace inner circle get to see you in action. Or take on "extra credit" work like writing articles or finding speaking opportunities. Just be sure the extra work isn't the kind where you're in a room working on something that gets you zero exposure. Pick things where the extra work will be recognized.

And lastly, but most critically, do a great job. There's no better marketing tool than a good reputation. Take pride in your work by paying attention to every detail. Avoid careless moves like being late or missing deadlines. As Johnny Carson once said, "Talent alone won't make you a success."

2. Having Sub-par Communication Skills

One timeless and industry-neutral piece of advice I give to employees of all ages is to learn to be the best communicator you can be. I talk to a lot of people in senior positions, and everyone agrees that ill communication is the biggest problem among employees today, particularly among those just coming out of college. People simply aren't prepared to create and convey a point of view. But sloppy communications hurt you. Clear communications, on the other hand, make you stand out.

Technology is surely partly to blame. We email and we text, and we use shorthand that's getting ever shorter, and as a result we're losing our skills in clear, concise expression. One way to reverse this trend is to use every opportunity you have to speak in front of groups. Presentation skills are like muscles. They need to be stressed if they're going to get stronger. And, like running or lifting weights, the more you do it, the easier it gets, the more you can take on, and the more accomplished you become.

In written communication, meanwhile, again it's critical to take pride in your work. Treat every memo as a reflection of your brand. Is it clear? Is it concise? Is it organized? Is the grammar perfect? It must be all of these things.

3. Refusing to "Lead Like [Insert Opposite Gender Here]"

Lately, many women have rebelled against the idea of "working like a man." But while I support the general intention -- women certainly don't need to be "like a man" in order to be successful -- the fact is that, woman or man, there are always things we can learn from the other gender to help advance our careers. Men are, as a whole, assertive, aggressive, task-oriented, risk taking, dominating, and competitive. Women, meanwhile, are instinctual, nurturing, collaborative, communicative, and responsive. There are some excellent qualities in here that both genders can and should adopt. The fact is that all of one -- all "male" traits -- or all of the other -- all "female" traits -- is not how to lead.

Which means that you can and should pick and choose from among these traits to use what works for you both personally and professionally. Some of the best advice I've ever heard on the topic of "how to be at work" is to know who you are -- and to be that. Don't try to adopt a style that doesn't fit. That said, your ideal workplace persona is very likely a blend of both masculine and feminine traits. Don't reject something that could work just because it may be how someone of the opposite sex "would do it." That there are variations all along the continuum is what makes us individuals, and human.

4. Problematically People-Pleasing

Worried that your assertiveness will be interpreted negatively? This is a mistake more commonly made among women, although men, in trying to be "the nice guy" or being reluctant to brag, often make it, too. But being firm and being nice are not mutually exclusive. You can, and should, be both. Think clearly and dispassionately about fights worth having. Don't create unnecessary drama. (You know exactly what I mean.) Sometimes our self-doubts cause us to go into situations with our fists clenched: "Do unto others before they have the chance to do it to you." We create conflicts we don't have to -- at home, at work. Stop doing that.

At the same time, also think clearly before backing down. It's easy to rationalize the caving in after the fact: "It's not worth it." "I'd lose anyway." "I don't want to make enemies." But non-confrontation can become a habit that is hard to break. And most successful people learn, very early on, that if everybody in an organization likes you, you're probably not in charge of anything. Being in charge means decisions. And decisions mean somebody is not going to like what you decide.

Look for the win-win if you can. But don't let that, or a need to people-please, stand in the way of the best decision. It's better to look hard than it is to look soft.

5. Going Mentor-less

One way to stop career progress fast is to try to go it on your own. Finding a mentor -- and being a mentor -- is critical. And yet most workers are reluctant to ask for mentors, even when they want them. For those searching for a mentor, the key is to look beyond someone who can give you advice. Find a champion, and make yourself valuable enough to warrant his or her time. Mentoring is one thing, but finding someone with actual follow through -- someone who will advocate for you -- is quite another. It's the difference between talk and action.

At the same time, once you have something to teach, become a mentor to someone else. Mentors get nearly as much from being teachers as their students do from being mentored. You may be afraid to give those below you too much good advice, for fear of being replaced. That's a common fear. But being able to tap into the younger worker's brain, community, and connections is invigorating. Knowing "what the kids are thinking" is what helps keep the veterans on their toes, and thinking fresh. And that's what career progress is all about, isn't it?