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This is the #1 thing that holds most people back from success
Hard work and talent? Overrated.
They won't be getting ahead with these attitudes.
They won't be getting ahead with these attitudes. (Courtesy Shutterstock)

What's the number one thing that holds most people back from success?

It's not intelligence or hard work. It's your attitude.

Sound like the drivel your parents told you when you were 16 that inspired eye-rolling? That's what I thought, too. But then I kept seeing the same thing over and over from experts and research.

The war for talent is a myth

Marketing genius Seth Godin says it's actually a war for attitude:

…it's not really a search for talent. It's a search for attitude. There are a few jobs where straight up skills are all we ask for. Perhaps in the first violinist in a string quartet. But in fact, even there, what actually separates winners from losers isn't talent, it's attitude. [Seth Godin]

What does Harvard tell its MBA students is the number one thing when negotiating salary?

First, they need to like you. That's the first component. The things you do that make them like you less make it less likely that you are going to get what you want… [Harvard]

Now, I'm not saying attitude is everything. There's experience, education, and other factors, of course. But you'd be surprised how little even some of those matter.

Hard working? Meh. Overrated. Stanford MBA school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer explains the research shows performance is only loosely tied to who gets ahead.

The data shows that performance doesn't matter that much for what happens to most people in most organizations. That includes the effect of your accomplishments on those ubiquitous performance evaluations and even on your job tenure and promotion prospects. [Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't]

Studies show being liked affects performance reviews a lot more than actual performance.

In an experimental study of the performance appraisals people received, those who were able to create a favorable impression received higher ratings than did people who actually performed better but did not do as good a job in managing the impressions they made on others. [Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't]

It's a popularity contest — and often for a good reason

If you catch yourself saying, "But I'm right and they're wrong!" — congratulations, you now have a confirmed attitude problem.

Yes, it is a popularity contest — and not necessarily unfairly.

People with more friends at the office perform better at the office.

…when MIT researchers spent an entire year following 2,600 employees, observing their social ties, even using mathematical formulas to analyze the size and scope of their address books and buddy lists, they found that the more socially connected the IBM employees were, the better they performed. They could even quantify the difference: On average, every email contact was worth an added $948 in revenue. [The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work]

The best predictor of team success is not smarts or effort — it's how team members feel about one another.

The better we feel about these workplace relationships, the more effective we will be. For example, a study of over 350 employees in 60 business units at a financial services company found that the greatest predictor of a team's achievement was how the members felt about one another. [The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work]

It's not about "fair." It's about "trust."

Don't scream "That's not fair!" Life is not a strict meritocracy like grade school.

School can warp our heads. In the working world, there's rarely one exam where you're an individual contributor who gets an all-defining grade.

In the education system, collaboration is called "cheating." In business, it's the main way things get done. And wherever there is collaboration, there's the issue of trust.

Does the company trust that you're on its side? Do the company's leaders trust that you're aligned with their mission and goals?

Hard work might not always be rewarded but research shows true believers get ahead:

A recently published BYU business study finds that employees who are "true believers" in the mission of their organization are more likely to increase in status and influence than non-believers…

The study found those who exhibit a strong belief in a brand's mission or cause become more influential in important company circles, while those simply focused on punching the clock become more peripheral players — regardless of formal company position or overall performance. [BYU]

Cynthia Shapiro, a former HR professional, lays things out pretty clearly.

The closer you bring yourself into the appearance of alignment through your daily actions and choices, the more favorable the company's opinions of you will be, and the more secure your job will be. How will you know? Those who are seen as being openly in alignment are the ones who gain recognition, favor, and promotions — even if they don't have the best skills. Maybe I'd better hit you with that one again: Those are the ones who get ahead regardless of their skills or performance.

Highly skilled employees, with seemingly great value to their organizations, are let go every day because they are perceived to be a potential risk and cannot be trusted. Conversely, employees are being promoted who don't have the best skills and may even have to be taught how to do the job, at great expense and time, because they appear to be in alignment and the company feels they can be trusted over others. [Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You to Know—and What to Do About Them]

What to do next

Keep in mind the lesson of Don Quixote: "If you want to be a knight, act like a knight."

How does this apply to the office? Here's my workplace equivalent: Be the person you were in your interview.

That's who they hired. That's who they hoped they were getting for their money. You were positive, enthusiastic, well-prepared, and aimed to please. What more could a company ask for?

For more workplace insights from my extended interview with Stanford MBA school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, sign up for the free weekly email update here.

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