There are several “career traps” that face talented and hard-working people who focus intently on getting their jobs done to the best of their ability, but who fail to devote enough effort to progressing their careers.

We tend to assume, probably unthinkingly, that the organisation will seek us out for promotion – that our obvious merits will be rewarded with ever more senior roles. In an ideal world, this is what happens. Modern companies work hard to be as meritocratic as possible.

The problem is that modern organisations are complex social entities and people are political animals. Wherever there is a significant hierarchy – a power structure – people will compete for power and the associated rewards. And some people are more instinctively political than others. They are more “Machiavellian.”

Machiavellian Intelligence

Some people instinctively have a high degree of Machiavellian Intelligence. They are, if you like, the natural diplomats of this world: charming and urbane, but always focussed on the outcome that is their own best interest, and not above a certain amount of manipulation of other people (in the nicest possible way) to achieve the necessary results. The rest of us have to work a bit harder at raising our MI. Getting our heads down and working ourselves into the ground is not a good career policy. We need to use all of our political skills as well.

In our new book, Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and thrive in the modern corporation, we explore the behaviours that come naturally to some people and less so to others. We suggest that a high degree of Machiavellian Intelligence (MI) is essential for career success. Luckily, we also suggest that MI can be acquired, to a degree. The book explores six “good” habits that are common amongst intelligent and hard-working executives, but which are, in fact, bad for your career – six habits that would be seen as highly commendable behaviour in a normal community that may not work in the more highly politicised corporate environment.

Here we explore the first good/bad habit: working too hard. Working hard is never a bad thing. Working hard is good. But working so hard that you fail to devote time and effort to progressing your career is bad. These are three reasons why working too hard can be bad for your career:

  1. Being an unknown entity

Working too hard at the expense of taking the time to flag up your achievements can mean that you are an unknown entity to the people who decide about your potential for further promotion and, perhaps more importantly, to the more senior people who must sign off any decision by your immediate superiors to promote you. You are undoubtedly doing an excellent job, but the powers-that-be are barely aware of this. In sharp contrast, a colleague who has taken the trouble to engineer the essential conversations or email exchanges with the right people, putting that colleague’s achievements in the best possible light, has become a known entity. When it comes to the promotion of one or other candidate, the known entity is a safer bet. Organisations don’t like risk. Your track record may be solid and you may perform well at interview, but the person who has become “a known entity” has the advantage. Working so hard that you do not take the time to do some PR on your own behalf is bad for your career.

  1. Becoming invisible

It is perfectly possible (and quite common) to work extremely hard and to do an exceptionally good job for the organisation but, as a direct result, to become invisible. The powers-that-be only ever see you in the context of “doing your job.” They are never given the impression that you have a lot more to offer. The organisation quite soon comes to believe that you are in the perfect role, working very hard and delivering excellent results for the organisation. Why promote you and run the risk that you have been promoted beyond your capabilities?  Remember that the only function of any role is to prove your readiness for the next, more senior role. Find ways of demonstrating your leadership skills. Delegate more; prove that you have the ability to deliver and then move on up. If you keep your head down and do a great job, you are not giving people the opportunity to see how much more you could contribute.

  1. Being overwhelmed

Many roles are potentially all-consuming: you flit from meeting to meeting, keeping one eye on the constant flow of emails, trying to spot the ones that demand a thorough and well-thought-through response (but how to find the time to do the necessary thinking and writing?) The meetings need following up: action points need to be distributed; outcomes need to be tracked. Everything you do seems to increase your workload, not lead you to some quiet place where you can survey your achievements and plan your next move.  At this point, you have become submerged. You are merely coping (or not) with your workload. You are not devoting the essential amount of time to thinking about what your next move up should be and how you can best achieve that. Running around in circles chasing your tail is “anti-progress.” You need to raise your head and gaze coolly at the organisation and your place within it. Is what you are doing now progressing your career? Are you in the right place within the organisation, doing something that will prove your usefulness to the organisation? If not, where should you be and what should you be doing?






Dr Mark Powell is a business writer, consultant and entrepreneur. As a business and strategy consultant for over 30 years, he has held senior Executive and Partner roles at Accenture, Fujitsu, Aon, KPMG, A.T. Kearney and Capgemini, in addition to running several start-up businesses. He spent ten years as an Associate Fellow of the Oxford Saïd Business School where he specialised in executive coaching and designing and directing senior executive leadership programmes.