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Procrastination, excuses, and overcommitting are some of the methods of self-sabotage. Professor Dariusz Doliński, social psychologist from SWPS University in Wrocław, explains why some people focus their efforts on impeding their own success, instead of focusing on achieving their goals.

Challenging Road to Success

American psychologists Steven Berglas and Edward Jones described the concept of self-sabotage in relation to achieving success. They researched a specific type of obstacles that people create to improve their self-esteem, although these obstacles significantly impede the chance of achieving success. Self-sabotage often happens in business environment, for example when the boss values his own image of a successful manager more than he values the goals of the company. If he procrastinates, many decisions that he makes may have negative consequences, however if he finds an excuse to explain the failure, he will not lose face and my eve gain respect of his subordinates.

Self-sabotage is a common tactic not only among managers, but also among other employees. For example, an employee is tasked with a big project, which he is supposed to start tomorrow. The employee realizes that the project is difficult, it requires professional experience and skills and it also needs a lot of preparation. If he does not complete the project, he will lose the trust of his boss and his coworkers. At the same time his self-esteem will suffer. He will see himself as a failure and his colleagues will most likely think the same. If the day before he helps his wife with the housework instead of preparing for the project, he will have an excuse in case he fails at work. It will be easy for him to blame his home responsibilities rather than his lack of preparation. If he succeeds, despite the self-sabotaging tactics, his self-esteem will increase. This behavioral strategy is very common in business environment, but it only seemingly allows to maintain an a good professional standing.


Another strategy of self-sabotage is forced incompetence. Many people highlight their flaws or the lack of skills in order to avoid the feeling of being a failure and to maintain a good opinion in the eyes of other people. Forced incompetence may be the result of fear, depressed mood, lack of sleep or stress. For example during an interview, candidates often mention that they are nervous. They do it to excuse their lack of knowledge or lack of competences. The message they are conveying is that the added stress should be taken into consideration in the assessment of their skills. Similarly an employee, who is supposed to represent the company at an important meeting calls in sick a few days before the meeting date. This helps him to maintain an image of an engaged employee and avoid the growing stress.

Blaming Others

A tendency to negative perception of the situation may also be a method of self-sabotage. It does not diminish the objective probability of achieving success, but it allows for a convenient interpretation of results. Before the start of the project, the manager tells himself that there are factors beyond his control that may impact the project. For example, the team is not right, there is no expert in the team, an employee has a bad influence on the team, but they cannot be removed due to employment regulations. If the project results in failure, the manager will have an excuse ready. Sometimes managers hire employees with questionable skills on purpose so that it is easier to explain potential failures without tarnishing the image of a successful manager.

Too Much to Do

Both managers and employees use the “too much to do” method. They tend to volunteer for too many projects simultaneously, because completing all of them well is not possible. Failing due to high workload is less painful. It is better to be seen as an overambitious rather than as an incompetent person, therefore taking on too many projects provides an excuse.

People have a tendency to self-sabotage, because it helps them to maintain their self-esteem. This strategy is usually employed preemptively, before the actual results are known and it serves as a safety net, in case of a potential failure. Self-sabotage is a complicated and not very effective way of dealing with lack of assertiveness in goal-oriented situations. It is much more effective to focus on fulfilling one’s responsibilities well than on finding new excuses for potential failures.


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About the author

Professor Dariusz Doliński - specializes in social psychology (mechanisms of submitting to external pressures and social manipulation), psychology of emotions and motivation and marketing psychology. He is the author of over 200 publications, including Przypisywanie moralnej odpowiedzialności [Assignment of Moral Accountability], Orientacja defensywna [Defensive Orientation], Strategie samoutrudniania [Self-Sabotage Strategies], and Psychologia wpływu społecznego [Psychology of Social Influence].