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Management by Coaching

Getting out of our own way

Why we self-sabotage & how to stop

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC

Carolyn wants to double the number of new commercial accounts her agency writes this year. She's been stating this exact same goal for the past five years and still isn't close to achieving it. Like many agents I know, Carolyn has plenty of ideas and plans. She starts to take action but something always gets in her way. The great ideas stay on the drawing board and the big results never materialize.

What's really going on here?

If you're like Carolyn and something keeps getting between you and your goal, chances are it's not "the business" or some random act of fate, it's self-sabotage. The sad truth is the obstacle standing in your way just might be you.

Are you a self-saboteur?

We all self-sabotage to some degree at some point. It's part of the human condition. But for many of us, the behavior is frequent enough that it really impedes success. Do any of these scenarios strike a chord with you?

Brett wants to merge his agency. He's been looking at agencies for the past five years. Every time he gets close to a deal, he discovers something about the agency or people involved that he doesn't like.

Alex is a highly motivated, hardworking, "type A" personality. He's always in search of ways to improve his business. He reads all the best-selling management books, attends seminars and networks with peers. He's always got a new idea. He juggles lots of projects at the same time and is constantly jumping from one to another. Before he fully finishes one project, he's on to the next.

Sean knows that if he's going to break the $25 million mark, he's got to beef up his sales force. That means letting one of the producers go and hiring two new ones. He plans on moving forward as soon as business settles down.

Paula's a commercial lines producer who wants to go after bigger accounts. She's a CIC, with a fair amount of experience and training under her belt. She has an outgoing personality and isn't afraid to ask for the business. Despite her desire to focus on more lucrative accounts, she keeps calling on and writing small businesses.

Focusing on the negative, not finishing what you start, putting off taking action on a chosen goal, or feeling like you are not quite good enough are all different faces of self-sabotage. But they all share the common behavior—acting in a way that goes against our own self-interests.

Why we self-sabotage

Self-sabotage is a battle of the mind. Visualize a massive tug of war pulling you in opposite directions. At one end of the rope is what you desire. At the other end is your view of the world and how you fit within it. Self-sabotage is activated when what you desire is in conflict with what you believe you can or should have and what might happen if you get it.

The tricky part is that the powerful forces at one end of the rope—your view of the world and how you fit in it—aren't always clear. Many of these concepts were formed when you were a small child and live deep in the subconscious. Think of your view of the world and how you fit in it as an iceberg—the tip is visible but there's a huge chunk you can't see. Often, it is these unseen forces that stop you from taking the actions that are critical to achieving your goals.

Here's how the inner tug of war plays out. Brett really wants to merge with another agency. Teaming with another firm will increase his clout with carriers and give him the scale he needs to increase profits and continue growing. He believes the key is finding the "right" agency. Brett will never find the "right" agency. Deep down he's afraid to take on a partner. As a young boy, Brett repeatedly heard the story about Uncle Pete who lost everything and was humiliated in the community as a result of an unscrupulous business partner. At an early age, Brett learned the dangers associated with business partners. Brett avoids this risk by finding fault in every potential business partner he meets.

Paula's desire is to write larger accounts. She wants the challenge and the revenue, and she has the technical know-how. But every time she thinks about calling on bigger accounts, she gets cold feet and pulls back. Paula rationalizes her decision by telling herself that her competitors are bigger, better known and more connected than she is. It's not call reluctance or lack of ability that stop Paula from acting; it's a fundamental belief that she's not good enough.

The belief goes back to her childhood. Paula's parents were never satisfied. When she brought home straight "A's" her father would say, "You must have had the easy teachers this semester."

Paula won't reach for her goal because in her heart she believes she is not good enough to compete at a higher level. Paula plays it safe and stays in her comfort zone working on small accounts.

Self-sabotage is an escape hatch. It helps us avoid what we're afraid to do.

How to stop

You don't have to be a victim of self-sabotage. The key to stopping self-sabotage is recognizing when you do it and understanding why you do it. Focusing on these eight steps will help you do that.

1. Be crystal clear about what you want. Instead of thinking in terms of a goal, think in terms of the outcome you want. In thinking through your outcome, consider:—What exactly do you want to happen (the more specific the better)?—When do you want it to happen?—How will you know you have it?—When you get it how will your life/business improve?

2. Consider what it will take to get it. This is a critical and often overlooked step. People commonly head straight for the action steps and don't take the time to carefully think through the impact of the goal they set. When issues arise, progress slows or stops altogether. Answering the following questions can help you avoid the self-sabotage that comes from bad habits or limiting beliefs about yourself and your situation:—What impact will working towards "what you want" have on your life?—What will you need to do differently?—What skills or resources will you need?—What risks might you have to take to get "what you want?"—What might you have to believe about yourself to get this?—What might you have to believe about the world/company/or situation to get this?

3. Know and do the "one thing." Stay focused on the "one thing" that will have the greatest impact on the outcome you want. Sound obvious? It may be common sense, but the reality is that we are very good at avoiding what we most need to do and then rationalizing why our avoidance is a good idea. Knowing and doing the "one thing" that has the greatest impact is fundamental to your success.

4.Give yourself space. Schedule regular and adequate time on your calendar to work on your "one thing" and be sure to honor it. People who follow this simple process generally achieve what they want; people who don't, seldom do.

5. Ditch the distractions. Know your weaknesses. If you can't resist looking at e-mail, cruising the Internet, responding to a colleague or picking up a ringing phone, remove the source of your temptation. Put a "do not disturb" sign on your door and shut off your electronics. Some people find it very helpful to get out of the office and work remotely when focusing on their most important thing.

6. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Achieving what we want generally entails some level of discomfort. It may mean learning a skill, taking a risk, overcoming a fear, or getting through a task we dread. The thing is, we're genetically programmed to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. When the going gets a little tough and we feel awkward, bored, anxious, or unsure of ourselves, our instincts are to slip right back into our comfort zone. The avoidance of discomfort is often the root cause of self-sabotage.

7. Give your plan a chance to work. Most efforts to reach a goal don't fail because people lack the ability or opportunity. They fail because people get distracted or give up before they have a chance to succeed. Achieving anything worth having takes time, attention and commitment.

8. Surround yourself with achievers. Most people aren't interested in playing a big game; they are content to be where they are. Their lack of energy will pull you down and make you lazy. Be around people who share your values and are achieving their goals. Their energy will be contagious and help you stay focused.

Self-sabotage is a complex behavior but you don't have to be a victim. The key is taking the time to know yourself and being self-aware of the games you play. Pay close attention to the priorities you choose and how much time you actually spend on them. Notice the tasks you avoid and the projects you leave unfinished. Be aware of how you react when things start to feel uncomfortable. The more you recognize what you're actually doing and why, the less likely it is that you'll succumb to self-sabotage.

So what is it that you really want? Are you ready to get out of your own way and start making it happen? 

The author

Kimberly Paterson is a business and Certified Energy Leadership Coach. She is president of CIM (, where she works with insurance organizations to build the vision, strategy, customer insight and leadership skills to energize people and achieve outstanding results. She can be reached at


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