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Personal Myths: Beliefs That Might Be Holding You Back

Management Corner – Part 4

Annette Reissfelder, a Professional Accredited Coach active in Prague and Hamburg, shares her musings on management, innovation and beliefs in this series first published in BUSINESSWOMAN this summer.

This article first appeared in “BusinessWoman” in June 2013.


Before I look into the “Sneaky Seven of Discouragement and Defeat” one by one, let me make a few general observations.

Beliefs can be described as pretty arbitrary ways to connect a few dots of knowledge and experience. They are not downright irrational, just generalisations that we use as shortcuts: many were useful for guiding our actions, or for understan­ding what was going on around us at some point in the past. And then, for the most part, we stopped questioning and inquiring into them. Generalisations are great energy savers, but mistaking shortcuts for “sacred truths” allows them to turn into myths. Also, many are quite dated – and relate to times where we were much less experienced than we are today, and were simply generating lower-quality heuristics than we would now.

A word on language: while mind-sets and beliefs are perfectly good descriptions, I really like the term myths because it sounds less rational. And how we name things is important: just think of the associations that your brain creates with an expression like “post-traumatic stress” – and compare that to what you associate with “post-traumatic growth”! Both are equally valid and observable phenomena, but obviously look for different types of behaviour. What is interesting is that depending on what you look for, you tend to “see” different things – even in the same people. So back to our myths:

A mythos in the literal sense is a sacred story concerning the origins of the world and how the world and the creatures in it came to have their present form. The active beings in myths are generally (half-) gods and heroes. In popular use, a myth denotes something that is widely believed, yet false. This usage arose from labelling the religious stories and beliefs of other cultures as being incorrect, (another fine example of belief systems at work: beliefs are so much easier to detect in others…!) but has since spread to cover non-religious beliefs. You’d perhaps expect mythology in studying home remedies, weather, or history, but not in seemingly fact-driven areas like business or (self-) management. Yet in the absence of awareness of their personal myths, people are prone to render decisions within an environment of fiction, legend, and pseudo-profes­siona­lism.

What is more, they are more prone to getting stuck in double-binds: those famous Catch 22 – “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” types of situations. Feeling there is no acceptable course of action as a result of double binds can contribute to lower self-esteem, feelings of resentment toward colleagues or business partners, or even apathy. Therefore, training yourself to perceive and evaluate myths will give you a real edge for debunking double-binds that someone places in your lap.

So how can you tell if you work by limiting beliefs or myths? Simply ask yourself: Do the unconscious assumptions that inform my actions energize and inspire me, and make me welcome every new day with a smile? If your answer is “Yes”, congratulations: your beliefs are your energizers, your drivers. Don’t change a thing! But if this is not how you feel about your life or work, have a look at the list below, and you’ll probably identify a few that you have allowed to confuse your common sense, and which have effectively started working against you, instead of for you. Next time, I’ll look at the first one of those “sneaky seven of discouragement and defeat”: Ambition.

Myth No. 1: “I must succeed, no matter what” – Ambition

If you must succeed, then you can't fail. That is, it's not in any way OK if you fail. Or worse: YOU are not OK if you fail. Ambition is a tricky one because obviously, it has a positive side: the tunnel vision it creates tends to drive you and put you into action. That can be extremely effective. But in being highly driven, you block other things out, become insensitive to other people, and miss out on other important things that aren’t success-related. You always feel right and justified in what you do. In your work life, this can make you prone to falling into unethical practices where the ends justify the means. We all have seen people behave like this, and reap seemingly great rewards from it; but ultimately these tactics break down or backfire – both in the business sphere and in people’s private lives. 

Ambition doesn’t like competition; which is why ambitious managers can be a hazard for the companies they work for: unwittingly, they condone or encourage “suck-ups”: that is people who present favourable information to them and give positive reinforcement - no matter what the price of blinding the organisation to much-needed outside feedback in the long run. Ambition also has an ugly cousin: “I must be right, no matter what”. They are related through the family tree of perfectionism, as are a few others we will meet in a moment...

A good way to handle ambition is to think of your career or your business as a game. Yes, you want to win, be successful, or make more money. But you can do so in a less driven way that is about playfulness, options, engagement, about building relationships and making a difference. When you do this, the success and money will most likely follow. This leaves you with the feeling of true accomplish­ment and growth, where you celebrate your wins and can include others in that celebration. Also highly recommended as a compensation strategy: try becoming ambitious for other people – especially where it’s safe. How about mentoring someone in another department or another company?

Sometimes, the root causes of ambition lie on a much deeper level – such as wanting to be like, or different from, or better than, an important family member; sometimes, these issues are even multi­generational – as in you having to have the career or life that one of your parents or grandparents couldn’t have for some reason. But even there, what is causing the trouble are still the beliefs that we associate with those indicators.

Management Corner – Part 1 Why Good Girls could be losing out in the workplace now
Management Corner – Part 2 The New Management Ideal
Management Corner – Part 3 Beliefs Trump Facts: An Introduction

About the author: Annette (www.an-edge-for-you.com) studied economics and holds a master degree in psychology. She started her coaching training in 1998 while she ran a management consultancy for manufacturing companies. Today her clients are business owners and senior managers who want to actively shape an important personal or professional change project. In her work, she combines the roles of consultant, strategic thinking partner and psychologist. She is multilingual and works in German, Czech and English.