15 Reasons Why Some People Outperform Others at Work

 January 30, 2018 • 6 minute read • by Saeed

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” ~ Winston Churchill

I am an evangelist for personal effectiveness. Success is a weird thing. Consider how some people who are terrible at their jobs continuously get promoted while others who excel are blocked from advancing and quit or change careers.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I can tell you that how well you do your job has very little to do with how successful you are in your professional career. Rather, success is more about a set of skills and traits that people carry with them consistently from job to job. Skills and traits they have learned and honed over time achieving a level of fluency and mastery that allows them to practice and implement them seamlessly.

I’ve narrowed these down to 15 core skills that when enacted together, make for a powerful cluster of effectiveness. Let’s look at what sets some apart from others.

1.      They build and maintain relationships:

They understand that the world of work revolves around relationships. Their network is their greatest asset and they cultivate and nurture it. They don’t recycle jobs, people, and relationships. They don’t burn bridges or highways. They understand that being nice to people on the way up is important because they’ll meet the same people on the way down. They think about other people and act on those thoughts. When they have acted poorly, they take responsibility and own up to their mistakes. They are consistently giving to others and are generous with their knowledge and skills. When interacting with others, they are active listeners: They hear the message and value the messenger.

2.      They are cooperative:

They understand that people like to work with people who are cooperative. This means teamwork and collaboration are their modus operandi. They get the idea that no one has to lose in order for them to win. Isolation rarely leads to innovation. It is through cooperation with others that new ideas take shape. What they get implicitly is that cooperation leads to increased productivity and increased satisfaction in themselves and in their colleagues. Their mindset is to work towards the win-win and when conflicts arise, they have the skills to resolve them quickly.

3.      They are communicative:

They are effective communicators. You just can’t get around it. Humans are social by nature and the grease that keeps the social wheel moving is communication. When communicating, they are neither passive nor aggressive. They are able to communicate assertively with clarity and concision but they still bring the friendly. They are attentive to their own and others’ non-verbal communication. They are engaged listeners who are able to focus not only on the message but also on what’s behind the message. They avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to their own agenda. They are non-judgmental and appreciate individual differences. They use all their senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and/or movement to steer conversations towards positive outcomes.

4.      They are good at self-regulation:

In a nutshell, they are good at managing their emotions. They are able to quickly identify negative emotions such as frustration, irritation, anger, and disappointment and are able to keep them in check. They maintain composure in the face of challenges. They keep non-productive self-talk to a minimum. They understand that emotions must be processed and they take quiet time to do so. Being a bull in a china shop emotionally only brings those emotions back later to ambush us. They understand that emotional mastery is not about controlling your feelings, but rather it’s about working with them productively by acknowledging, exploring and understanding them.

5.      They persevere:

Those that outperform others understand that a central key to success is doggedness and grit. I would rather hire a person that is hard working than naturally intelligent or naturally talented. That is because perseverance trumps both. They also understand that the things that they desire will need endless effort and time for completion. Perseverance means fighting through and pushing past your comfort zone. It means not giving up at the first sight of adversity. People who have a mindset of always persevering simply go farther.

6.      They are focused:

Focus is the gateway to success. That is because of the finite nature of time – the only thing no one has learned to make more of. Focused people understand Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to take up the time available to finish it. They understand that they have to learn to filter their efforts through the time they have. They set goals and focus on the things that help them move in the direction of those goals. They exclude distractions. They obliterate clutter (internal and external), and they master the use of organizational techniques and technology. Finally, they are present and in the flow. They are able to focus on the here and now rather than on what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future.

7.      They have perspective:

I am always struck by how often people don’t consider the importance of perspective or consider taking different vantage points on a problem or challenge. Multiple vantage points multiply the opportunities for successful action. This is an important skill for anyone, and people who routinely outperform others at work adopt this mindset as a way of short circuiting frustration by considering alternative perspectives. They understand that empathy is all about shifting perspective and that by adopting alternative perspectives they can proactively quiet down emotional centers in the brain, which helps them approach a challenge with a more positive mindset and greater energy and investment. This helps them solve problems more effectively.

8.      They are resilient:

Resilience is a quality successful people have in common. They are survivors. They understand that they will come across challenges whatever path they’re on. Life comes in waves. There’s no way to stop the waves crashing, but you can learn to surf. They view challenges as experiences that have to be endured and fought against. Resilience is simply the ability to bounce back from adversity and setback. This comes from the mindset of viewing failure as an opportunity to learn rather than allowing it to paralyze you.

9.      They manage their expectations:

This means they don’t get too high when they experience a win and they don’t get too low when they experience a setback. They look for where expectation gaps exist or where they might arise and manage them accordingly. An expectation gap is the chasm that exists between the expectations that are created on one side and how people believe those expectations have been met on the other. People that outperform are able to bridge those expectation gaps proactively because they know that failure to do so can be costly. They also know that if they violate expectations, they will be me with suspicion and ire so they don’t over-promise or under-deliver.

10.  They understand office politics:

Some people shy away from office politics while others just plain hate it. Those that outperform others embrace them. Let’s keep this real. Some office environments can be brutal. Being a Pollyanna in such environments can be crushing. This is not an argument for being Machiavellian either. But paying attention to interpersonal relations and politics and understanding social psychology and behavior is beneficial. Instead of avoiding, learning to leverage your emotional intelligence to navigate the highways and byways of work and can actually help you grow.

11.  They strive for visibility:

The nature of knowledge work makes it inherently difficult to see the fruits of your labor. Yet, it has always been my experience that exposure and visibility are key to career advancement. If no one sees you, you don’t exist.  People that outperform others know this truth and seek exposure by looking for more visible projects and opportunities. They document their accomplishments by keeping a running record so that they have information at their fingertips when it comes time to review their performance or throwing their hat in for the next project. Above all, they are strategic about who they get exposed to, how and when.

12.  They have drive:

Intrinsic motivation is arguably one of the most important predictors of success. The most successful people simply keep plugging away at their work longer than others. Rather than passivity, their internal drive prompts them to action. It’s one thing to say you are motivated to achieve your goals; it’s another entirely to have that motivation translate into action. People that outperform others understand a basic fact: All else being equal, your reap what you sow. They make decisions and once decisions are made, they devote and dedicate themselves to making it happen with dogged determination.

13.  They take risks:

Great, otherwise unforeseen opportunities often come from risk-taking. It is said that “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” Taking risks shows confidence and helps you stand out. We also learn from risks because they push us out of our comfort zone. Stellar performers have adopted the mindset of fail fast and fail forward.They see failure just as important if not more important than success. Facebook was famous for their “move fast and break things” mantra and they saw rapid growth as a result. This doesn’t mean all risk is good. Risk, after all, has to be calculated. Taking risks is a discipline that starts small and builds on initial successes.

14.  They are adaptable:

Stephen Hawking defined intelligence as the ability to adapt. People that are adaptable tend to go with the flow rather than resist the tide. Their energy is better utilized and more in tune with the nature of things. While most people are averse to change, outperformers embrace it. They have a growth mindset and are more spontaneous and accepting when unexpected changes happen. They anticipate change and build in margins for making adjustments so they can adapt to any situation at any given time. Being willing and able to adapt your behavior increases your ability to communicate and build productive relationships with other people. Adaptable people are flexible people not set in doing things only their way.

15.  They have a positive attitude:

Finally, just about everything on this list is influenced by positivity or negativity. Out-performers understand that it takes a positive attitude to achieve positive results. They know that attitude creates the way you feel about people and situations and that a positive attitude is infectious. I generally start my workshops and seminars by asking a fundamental question: What attitude did you bring into this meeting? This question kicks into gear a level of attitudinal awareness that people don’t often have. Your self-talk determines your attitude, which determines how you present yourself to the world. Think of your mind as a software program. You have control over the programming. Whatever you put into it is reflected in what comes out. You can choose whether what comes out is positive or negative.

A Final Word…

You will notice that nowhere on this list did I mention technical skills, intelligence or talent. Performance is about the day-to-day attitudes and skills you bring coupled with the quality of the results you deliver. If you adopt these traits as your roadmap and practice them consistently, there is virtually no way you can get lost on the journey to success.

Wait! Before you go…

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I write personal and professional development articles to help readers be the most effective human being they can be; in short, to help you find your inner awesomeness. By liking, commenting, sharing, and following, you are encouraging me to keep going. It is my direct feedback loop that tells me that I am providing value to you.

I also love connecting with new people and seeing what others are up to in the world.

Last thing, if you liked this post, consider checking out my other recent posts for inspiration and concrete actions steps to become more effective at work and life.



©2018 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.


  1. Excellent read! I believe it’s right on target. I think most people possess some of these skills and this article helps see what skills one can work on for self improvement. I’m curious about how these skills play out depending on the context or environment of the institutions you work in and you’re the only minority. In other words, is this all you need or do you need more when these skills may be overlooked because you’re a person of color trying to go up the corporate ladder?

    1. Thanks for the comment Adriana. Skills are skills but institutional racism and bias is real and so it is entirely possible to apply the skills but still hit a wall because of prejudice in the workplace.

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