10 Career-limiting mistakes to avoid

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I write a lot about how to be better at your job, how to excel at interview, how to improve your skills and so on, and I interview a lot of experts who talk about those kinds of things.

Today I want to talk about the opposite: what you should avoid doing at work. I’ve seen project managers and other colleagues crash and burn. It’s not nice to watch, and I hope it doesn’t happen to you.

Fortunately, there are some easy things you can do to avoid common mistakes and stay on the right path.

Here are 10 career-limiting mistakes to avoid at work.

Woman sitting at her desk looking miserable as she has made a mistake.

1. Not being truthful

Here’s an example.

I was contacted by a sales person. This happens often in my job. I told him honestly that I didn’t see any possibility of using his software at work, but that I was revising Social Media for Project Managers for a second edition (now published as Collaboration Tools for Project Managers) and that there would potentially be some scope in learning more about their product for that. He seemed keen and we set up a meeting.

Then I heard that he was contacting my colleagues. Not just one or two but lots of them. Lots of senior managers. Telling them that he had a meeting with me and that as his software would be used by my company in the future that he should meet them to explain about it.

There is a reason that project management has a code of ethics.

This was embarrassing for me. I had no problem with him telling people we were meeting, which was the truth, but the “you’ll be using my application soon” part was a complete lie.

And I told him so. I also cancelled our meeting. I could write my book without his case study (and I did).

Career-limiting because: People find out if you lie. People find out if you exaggerate the truth. It will always bite you in the bum. So don’t do it.

This is one of the reasons people don’t get promoted. Don’t be that person.

Read next: My review of Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn’t and Why by Donald Asher. It’s a game-changing book!

2. Not doing good handovers

A good handover at the end of a piece of work is important for ongoing relationships and harmony in the office. Plus it’s good practice.

Make sure that your project is handed over at closure to the people who will be using the product long term, along with all the associated documents, lessons learned, training material and so on.

Check they know how to contact you in case they need to (assuming you are still staying in the business). However, you should also make it clear that this is not your project anymore and they are responsible, otherwise they’ll lean on you for a long time. Been there, done that!

If you need to handover work to your manager, then make sure you’re doing that quickly and with all the relevant details. It’s not difficult, it’s just a bit time-consuming to gather all the information from your documentation and what’s in your head.

Learn how to write a good handover email to a client, because it’s different to writing notes or handing over in person to a colleague.

Career-limiting because: No one wants to work with the project manager who emails the operational team a closure document and is never seen again.

Read next: The Ultimate Guide to Project Closure

3. Not talking about problems

Surprises are bad. They are worse than not talking about problems because no one, especially not senior managers, like surprises. If you don’t talk about problems then you risk hitting your manager with bad news. Project sponsors don’t like bad news either.

Don’t run a watermelon project.

A watermelon project is one that is green on the outside but red when you cut it open to examine it more closely. Talk honestly about what is going wrong.

Report your project as Red or Amber when your project isn’t Green, because that’s the honest status it is. Let people know what you are doing about it, and what your path to return to Green is and how long it will take to get there.

Career-limiting because: People will feel as if you don’t have a handle on what’s going on, or that you are not truthful. Or both.

Woman sitting at a desk with a slice of watermelon

4. Not taking decisions

Good initiatives die through stagnation. Often we need decisions to be made and no one else will step up and do it. When no one around you will make the decision and you think it is safe to do so, make the decision yourself.

Be empowered until someone tells you that you are not. You probably have more authority than you think, and you can certainly take more authority than you have.

You’re managing a piece of work, so step up and do it otherwise you are not showing demonstrable leadership. You are not being accountable. The buck stops with you. End of.

[Find out why there is no such thing as a bad decision.]

Career-limiting because: Managers want to work with project teams who get work done. Decisions make that happen, and show that you are acting in a leadership role.

Get a free decision log template to help you record your work.

5. Not treating your colleagues as customers

Colleagues are not an annoyance. They want a report in a different format? They want a meeting on a Friday afternoon when you’d rather be packing up to start the weekend early? It’s inconvenient, but they are your customer. Treat them accordingly.

By all means negotiate the time of that meeting and try to get the best outcome for yourself as well.

Career-limiting because: Other people pay your wages. Make the link.

pin image with text: 10 career limiting mistakes to avoid

6. Not saying no

You can treat someone like a customer and still manage to say no to them from time to time. Don’t feel that you have to meet every stupid whim (project stakeholders and your colleagues are not above doing idiotic things sometimes).

You’ll be faced with scope changes that they don’t want to pay for, unreasonable requests for extra work or impossibly-speedy work and more. Say no. Be polite but don’t be a doormat.

Career-limiting because: You’ll be seen as a walkover and someone who is not truly in control of the work. And because if you are in a consultancy or service business and customers keep asking for work that you agree to without being paid for it, you’ll go out of business.

7. Not doing lessons learned

Most post-implementation reviews end up with a list of lessons captured. Lessons captured are not the same as lessons learned. I concede that they are better than nothing.

Not doing the exercise to find out what lessons the team learned when a piece of work is done means you are unable to learn from your mistakes. You will not revise and standardize your processes. You’ll never get any better at your job, and your company will never improve its organizational knowledge.

Grab a free agenda template for lessons learned sessions and book your meeting now.

Career-limiting because: You’ll never improve your performance, and you’ll never be able to demonstrate that you can improve your performance.

8. Not working with a sponsor

This one isn’t your fault. Let’s say you start working on a project and then the sponsor leaves. They are not replaced. Or the project falls way down the list of priorities and although you have a sponsor named in your Project Charter or in your other project documents, they don’t actually contribute anything.

Not working in partnership with a sponsor is definitely career-limiting.

Career-limiting because: You’ll have no one to champion your successes and support you. You’ll have no one who can put you forward for new opportunities based on your performance at work.

9. Not staying up to date with training

What I do now as a project manager isn’t the same as what I did ten years ago. It just isn’t — my personal skills have developed as has my technical ability to do my job.

Partly that’s down to the fact I’m older and have more experience, but partly it’s to do with taking an active interest in getting better. I’ve taken training courses, read books and generally looked out for my own professional development.

You should too.

Here are some of my favorite training options right now:

  • If you’re hoping to do the PMP exam then try Brain Sensei. It’s a video training course based on the concept that work is like dealing with feuding factions in ancient Japan, and very well put together.
  • It’s impossible not to like the training material put out by Cornelius Fichtner; I’ve listened to his online learning materials for years. The PDU Podcast is aimed at people who are collecting professional development units for their PMI credentials but it’s also full of useful material for project managers and their teams looking to keep their skills up-to-date. Get it here.

Career-limiting because: You’ll be unable to prove you are continually learning, which is often a criteria for showing your managers that you are serious about your career. You’ll limit your chances of hitting any continuous professional development requirements for your professional body.

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10. Not listening to your experts

Every team has experts. They contribute to your plans. They do most of the work. As a manager, your role is to make it easy for them to do their jobs.

The problems come when you used to do their job, and you still want to. Managers meddle. They override decisions made by the people actually doing the work. They make up their own estimates based on how long they think things will take.

Mostly managers get it wrong because life has moved on since they were in the ‘hands on’ job. They aren’t always up-to-date with the latest processes and practices. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know better than they do.

Career-limiting because: They know better than you. Honestly!

Ignore them and you’ll make mistakes that could cost you the success of your project. And you know that you’re mainly judged by the success of your last project, don’t you?

Bonus: Get my book, Engaging Stakeholders on Projects: How to Harness People Power, to explore how to communicate faster, work virtually with people across the globe, and get better business results.

Your next steps

Avoiding these career-limiting mistakes can enhance your professional trajectory, and get you on the radar for the right reasons.

If you take nothing else from this article, remember that honesty and transparency are crucial, as deceptive practices inevitably backfire. Proper handovers, open communication about problems, and decisive action can show that you’re reliable and have the right mindset for leadership.

Treating colleagues as customers fosters a collaborative work environment, while the ability to say no and set boundaries shows control and professionalism.

Continuous learning and leveraging the expertise of your team helps you remain relevant and competent in your field, surrounded by colleagues who boost your performance. Finally, a strong relationship with a sponsor can propel your career (and your project) forward, providing support and advocacy.

By steering clear of these pitfalls, you pave the way for success and growth in your career. Your actions today shape your opportunities tomorrow. Keep learning, stay truthful, and lead with confidence. You can do it!