Turning Your Bad Habits Into Superpowers

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In an inspiring and humor-filled session at the first-ever ACFE Women’s Summit, the ACFE’s Director of Research, Andi McNeal, CFE, CPA, and Communications Manager, Mandy Moody, CFE, invited attendees to hold a mirror up to ourselves and examine some habits that we may consider to be professional defects, in order for us to reframe these habits as sources of power. McNeal and Moody shared that the origin of their session, titled “Turning Your Bad Habits Into Superpowers,” came out of an office discussion group focused on Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith’s “How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job.” Though the book focuses on 12 habits, McNeal and Moody chose to focus on three solution-based lessons that resonated most with participants in their book club:

  1. How to brag without bragging

  2. How to cultivate strategic professional allies

  3. How to recognize and analyze our perfectionism

How to brag without bragging
Moody started off the first pointer by acknowledging that it’s often uncomfortable to share what one needs or wants, especially in a professional setting. But, as a conceptual framework for the session, she argued for the importance of sitting in this discomfort, noting that the most personal growth occurs during periods of discomfort.

To be able to brag about oneself and one’s successes, it’s crucial that the bragging comes from a genuine excitement surrounding one’s job. When someone genuinely loves what she does, she’s able to promote herself in an entirely truthful and joyful manner. But how are we to go about bragging about our success without feeling uncomfortable about it?

Moody recommended this as a long-term practice that grows more comfortable over time. As a starting exercise, she highlighted how crucial it is to share your goals with others. It’s incredibly common to think about and even write down our own career aspirations, but it’s strikingly rare to share these desires and plans with coworkers, supervisors and company leadership. To grow more accustomed to this, Moody asked seminar attendees to think of one professional goal they have for the next year, and to write down a plan of action for who they’re going to share it with and how. By planting the seeds of these goals in conversations with others, it becomes very natural and even expected for you to share your successes and progress reports along the path to achieving these goals.

Another crucial opportunity for bragging is during reviews and evaluations. Moody shared that she keeps an inbox folder called “personal successes,” where she files emails she’s received that praise her work or contributions. Not only is this an endearing confidence boost, but she can also reference these messages in annual evaluations to showcase other people lifting up her own work. In this way, the bragging is outsourced to colleagues who have praised Moody in the past.

To close out this tip, Moody reminded attendees to share the love! When your team succeeds, you succeed, and it’s important to give credit where it’s due, so be sure to brag on your team as much as possible.

How to cultivate strategic professional allies
A major roadblock in our professional development can be dealing with intimidation and imposter syndrome. However, McNeal and Moody invited attendees to reframe this intimidation into something healthy: if we’re not feeling slight intimidation, we may too easily get bored and unmotivated. To confront imposter syndrome and feelings of being inadequate or uncomfortable, we must remember to lean into our vulnerability.

In order to become more comfortable being vulnerable, it’s imperative that we develop strong, symbiotic relationships that are rooted in a mutual desire to see each other succeed. These allyships must be strategic in sharing knowledge and helping each other achieve goals in a way that also benefits the organization or company; strong allies work together to maximize professional successes, not to team up against others.

McNeal and Moody delineated some easy steps to take in order to begin and continue building these networks:

  • Acknowledge that it’s difficult to do things entirely on your own; most of the time, a team of one just won’t cut it.

  • Talk to people whose roles are different than your own. This will help you gain valuable perspectives that will lead to holistic problem-solving approaches.

  • Talk earnestly and authentically about your projects at work. Not only will you be sharing valuable information, but these social relationships could develop into affirming friendships. This is a great opportunity to blend technical skills with personal growth.

  • Be curious and ask lots of questions.

  • When you receive an email, think of who else might need to know this information. By sharing knowledge, you’ll be fortifying professional relationships while aiding in the professional development of your colleagues.

  • Always remember to practice active listening.

  • Reach out of your comfort zone by challenging yourself to forge relationships with people who are at different stages in their careers than you.

  • Remember that a mentorship doesn’t always need to be formal; it can take the form of casual conversations in parking lots and mail rooms, or in book clubs, or over coffee or happy hour.

It’s also important to note that these exercises are not just one and done. These networks and relationships must be tended in order for them to grow to their full potential.

How to recognize and analyze our perfectionism
McNeal led the discussion on the last topic, confronting the notion that there isn’t any room for imperfections in a professional setting. While we may live with perfectionism in many areas of our lives, we need to be honest with ourselves about what our perfectionism looks like in the workplace. Maybe our perfectionism has helped us to get where we are today, but it’s important to interrogate the ways in which it may be holding us back. Quoting from “How Women Rise,” McNeal challenged us to learn how to harness and direct our perfectionism, reminding us that “In order to rise, we have to lay our burdens down.”

Often, focusing on the details of a project can distract us from the bigger picture. Within a work setting, we need to identify what our real burden might be:

  • Do we struggle to trust people?

  • Do we confuse showing up as perfect with showing up as confident?

  • Are we focusing too much on “should” instead of “would”?

  • What’s bringing us to the point where we feel we have to perform flawlessly?

If we’re willing to seek answers to these questions and then share those thoughts with others, we minimize the power that our perfectionism maintains over us.

McNeal highlighted the need to recognize that not all potential flaws are created equal; we need to learn how to prioritize our risks in the same way we assess fraud risks. To illustrate this point, she used the example of a boat: if there are holes in the bottom of the boat, this is a huge risk. But if there are chips in the paint, someone might notice them, but we’re not at risk of sinking. As CFEs, McNeal continued, we are trained to analyze risks, but we need to learn how to transfer these skills into our own modes of working on projects.

McNeal and Moody offered a couple other solutions to combating perfectionism:

  • Recognize that the opposite of perfectionism is not sloppiness or a lack of care; it’s understanding the reality of the gravity and the risks of each situation.

  • Practice getting comfortable saying “I don’t know” when someone asks a question you can’t answer. By admitting you don’t know the answer, you’re not doing yourself a disservice. Rather, you’re keeping your credibility and maintaining a level of trust.

  • Learn to delegate when you need to. Not only will this help you manage your own stress, but you’ll also be developing your growing network of allies by giving someone else a chance to learn and grow.

Time to unleash your power
Throughout the session, McNeal and Moody expressed a genuine interest in and excitement for the prospect of everyone — not just women — learning to put these tips into practice. A theme throughout the session was the importance of stepping outside of our comfort zones in order to grow in meaningful ways. As McNeal put it, “Learning and growing require making mistakes. If we only keep doing the things we know we can do flawlessly, we won’t ever be able to grow.”