12 Career Derailment Factors

12 Career Derailment Factors

After working in business for the past 30 years, not much surprises me. However, one of the things that still gets me at times is how few people are aware of what their derailment factors are. If you know my work and my writing, you know that I’m well grounded in positive psychology and have a hearty focus on what’s working well and how we can amplify it. Strengths, purpose, intentional career navigation and other aspects that help us to flourish. But I’m also a realist and there are certain things in our careers that we simply must be pragmatic about to create the kind of success we are working towards (however you define it).

Derailment factors are things that can undermine your success, and potentially derail your career if you are not aware of them and don’t manage them effectively. The list of possible factors could potentially be endless, but let’s focus on the top twelve that are the most common ones I see for professional women and that we unpack in detail inside the Women Rising program.


In any professional situation, irrespective of what you do or which stage you’re at, the ability to build effective relationships is critical. It sounds so simple and obvious, but I’ve seen many careers derailed because people either don’t know how to build effective positive relationships, or don’t prioritise this in the busyness of work. It can show up in different ways, some subtle or unconscious, and others more obvious; the inability to collaborate, being too dependent on the people around you or the opposite, working too independently, the inability to build rapport, being too self-serving, or even undermining other people at work.

If you can’t build effective relationships, you will limit your success at some point. Take a close look at the relationships you have with your colleagues, team members, manager, upline leaders, and external or internal stakeholders that matter. Where is the strength in these relationships? Where are risks that you need to mitigate? Do you have a pattern that is showing up, that is potentially hindering your ability to build relationships that matter? Spend some time to look for any derailment signs here.


I see many women coming up through the ranks or moving from a management to a leadership position, and not being able to effectively lead. Leadership has many different components. Where could you be stronger? Is it in the ability to inspire your team, or create vision for where you are going in your business? Perhaps it’s leading effectively by setting the direction, then getting out of your people’s way and removing obstacles so they can do their job?

Perhaps it’s delegation that you struggle with. We often think, “It’ll be quicker for me to just do it myself.” Or “My team is so busy, I don’t want to burden them with more work.” That may be fine in some situations, or at certain levels, but once you get into a leadership role, you must learn how to delegate.

And you need to understand the difference between managing your people and your work and showing up as a true leader. How vulnerable are you as a leader? Dr. Brené Brown, one of the world’s leading researchers on authenticity, has found that one of the critical components for great leadership is the willingness to be vulnerable with others. Your inability to lead effectively is a derailment factor. Think about how well placed you are to do it, no matter where you might be currently sitting. It’s never too early (or too late) to build your leadership capability.


Are your behaviours serving you or stopping you? I’ve experienced this one personally, and it’s an area where having the right mentors or sponsors in place to check your behaviour can be career saving. At certain points in my corporate career, mentors, sponsors or managers had pointed out to me behaviours I was exhibiting that could have been derailment factors had I not gotten a hold of them. There is an endless list of limiting behaviours you could think about, but here are a couple of common ones that get people unstuck: being abrasive, being rude, being disrespectful, being insensitive, behaving as if you are above certain pieces of work or above certain people in your organisation, being short with people, focusing on the task and not the relationship.

Notice I didn’t add in here too aggressive, or too nice, which are complaints often aimed at women in the workplace when they show up as themselves. This is not about gender norms at work or the double bind. It’s about real behaviors that can harm you. Check yourself. Which behaviours are serving you and which ones could be potentially undermining your goals and dreams for your career? Have a mentoring conversation with someone who supports you, sees the authentic you and wants to help through honest feedback. And particularly watch how you show up in times of stress and deadlines – often it’s when any derailment worthy behaviour will rear its ugly head.


There are many things you have to be responsible for in a career, irrespective of role, level or industry. One of the most important factors, whether we like it or hate it, is the ability and willingness to manage up. That could be the need to manage your boss. It could be your board. It could be other stakeholders within your reporting line or on the project you’re currently working. It’s a factor that can undermine your career if you don’t take the time and effort to do it effectively.

Look at the relationships that you must manage. What do each of your stakeholders need from you? What are their agendas? What information do they need and how do you report on your successes, progress and achievements? How about your boss, and your boss’s boss? Being crystal clear on this and making it apparent how you are serving each of your stakeholders, is core to managing up and key to your career. You may not like that fact, but it’s a reality that everyone must deal with. At least you’re in good company.


One of the reasons some women don’t manage up effectively, don’t promote and communicate work progress, and don’t state clearly what our next ideal role is, is because we have this thought pattern in our heads: “If I just do the work, then the work will take care of itself, people will notice and I will get the recognition I deserve.”

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, it’s just not the typical case. In some careers or situations the work does take care of itself, managers and other stakeholders pay attention and careers flourish. In many other situations however, it’s not enough. You must be able to communicate what you’re doing, the results that you are seeing, why those results matter, and how that impacts the organisation’s results and goals.

Here's the key: You don’t have to be arrogant or loud about it and you can do it in a way that is authentic to you. Look for the openings to share the work you are doing. Seek out opportunities to present at the next management meeting. Talk about what you’re working on and the impacts it’s having. And make it clear what types of special projects, roles, assignments or hot jobs you are interested in so people are aware and can support you to get them. Bosses usually aren’t mind readers. It is about the work, and it’s also about much more. Don’t be afraid to communicate your worth.


This one is pretty simple. Change is a constant. It’s maybe the only constant that we have and we have experienced this full force over the past 2.5 years. Be conscious of where the change is in your workplace and ask yourself these questions; how do I gear myself up to take advantage of that change? How do I help accelerate the change if that’s what’s required? How do I use this change to my advantage as opposed to pretending that it’s not there? And what will the change mean for my role/business/team down the track? Having been previously responsible for business strategy as well as organisational culture and change in a 5 Billion dollar business, I have seen too many careers be derailed because people had their heads in the sand and didn’t see, acknowledge or get on board, when the wave of change came their way. Keep your finger on the pulse.


Do you understand how your work fits into the larger goals of the business you work in? Many people get derailed because whilst they are doing a great job in their part of the business, they don’t really understand how that work contributes to the overall objectives of the organisation they are in. Nobody works in a vacuum. You need to understand how what you do matters in the broader scheme of things. And you also have to know how to gear your objectives, priorities and outcomes to those of the business. In an ideal world, you would have a manager or leader who would make that crystal clear. But knowing that a large majority of disengagement in a business comes from lack of clarity about organisational vision and goals, you can’t count on it. Do what you can to get clear on the why and how of what matters about your work and how it contributes. And if you’re still not sure, find a mentor or sponsor who does know and can help you work it out.


Politics, that old chestnut? Let’s be clear, this is a lot about power, of course. But it’s also just about human dynamics and relationships. Look around you. Where are the relationships? Where are the power structures? Who has the power and what form does it take? Where are the problem areas of the business that you need to be aware of? Who are the key stakeholders? Where are the agendas? How do those agendas relate to what you are doing in your part of the business, and what you need to get done in your career? Who may be a roadblock to your goals? Understanding this landscape is critically important. If you don’t understand the political landscape, you can derail your career without even knowing it. As much as we may not want to play around in the political sandpit, at a minimum we need to understand what the content and context of that sandpit is.


There’s an epidemic ravaging our workplaces. It’s called the people pleaser syndrome and it impacts women particularly. We can attribute it to both nature and nurture, and also to the double bind, the research showing that women can be perceived as competent or likeable, but rarely both. Regardless of the how and why, we are clear on the what. People pleasing behaviour drives us to want to please, to be liked, be helpful, and not ruffle any feathers. It also drives us to avoid confrontation.

Are you a people-pleaser? Does pleasing people in your career impact the decisions you make? Does it impact when you will speak up and indeed what you will say when you speak up? Do you go and canvas opinions so you can ensure that when you give your opinion in the meeting you’re not upsetting people, that you’re going to be liked, and that everyone is still going to be happy with you? It’s exhausting just writing that, let alone living it. But we can all suffer from it. Get under the covers of the stories you’re telling yourself and the impact they’re having. This is a huge one, don’t go past it too quickly.


Many years ago I worked with a senior leader who was utterly narcissistic, controlling, rude, and arrogant in the way that he behaved. Yet it appeared quite clearly to everyone around him that he had no clue of his impact on others. Unfortunately, he was so successful in his business, and I say successful in monetary terms, that his behaviour went unchecked for a very long time. But eventually his lack of self-awareness played out as a derailment factor and he was forced to get himself in check.

The reason those behaviours played out for so long was that he had no awareness of how he acted and the impact it had, and for many years even when it was pointed out to him he refused to accept it. Until it was almost too late. Have a think about your levels of self-awareness and acceptance. Hopefully you are aware of your strengths and how they help you to excel. What else do you need to bring your attention to? What impact do you have on other people, what energy do you bring, what feedback do you get that you brush off as an untruth because you don’t want to accept it? Go a bit deeper here and see what awareness you can bring that may help you.


We’ve all known these people. We’ve all worked with these people. People who say they’re going to do something but never follow through. Think about this very simple question: Do you do what you say you will do? If you don’t, if you have a habit of not following through, then recognise that as a derailment factor. Start becoming very intentional about what you commit to, so that you can ensure that you have the time, energy and resources to follow through and deliver. It is much better in most cases to defer a task or project, or decline an opportunity to be involved in something, than to take it on and then be unable to deliver. It can have an irreparable impact on your personal brand, and future opportunities. Get clear and intentional about your capacity and capability, and then do what you say you will do. The bottom line on this one is that it’s about personal integrity. And you want to protect that very closely.


This is perhaps the most common derailment factor, and the one that impacts not just your career, but your entire life. You know how it goes. You’ve got important stuff to do in the world. You might tend to be in the A type personality category and sit firmly in your drive and strive energy. You may also have a tendency to be a workaholic, have a pronounced inability to set boundaries for yourself, and perhaps put yourself last when it comes to your health and wellbeing (sound familiar at all?).

Now this one is not easy, I grant you that. But as anyone who has burnt themselves out from overwork, lack of boundaries and no self care (that includes me), it is a long way back. This comes down to positive intention, self-awareness and getting under the stories you tell yourself about why you work the way you do. You need to be intentional about your health, your wellbeing, how you balance your work and life, and why you do what you do. Really check in with yourself on this, be real and put the strategies in place that support you to thrive, not just survive.

So, there you have it. In total twelve all too common reasons why people derail their careers, often without even realising it. Don’t let any of these factors have a negative impact on your career. You deserve a career you love and for all your hard work to pay off. Spend some time reflecting on each one and thinking of additional factors that could get you off course, so that they don’t.

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