Breaking Down Barriers In Your Career

  | 9 min read
Breaking down barriers

Overcoming challenges along your career journey

Sometime in March, I had the privilege of being invited to speak on the subject of Breaking Barriers.  Barriers can be seen or unseen but we all know how powerful they can be in limiting our growth, both professionally and personally.  We began by just defining the word barrier according to the Oxford Dictionary as ‘a circumstance or obstacle that keeps people or things apart or prevents communication or progress’.

We then followed this definition closely with a visualisation moment where we each shared a clear description of a physical or metaphorical barrier and some were asked to describe what they saw.  The following words emerged in the descriptions; a big steel gate, a prison door, a person standing in the way, a heavy burden slowing the carrier down, a wave of emotion.

I enjoy teaching this series because it is about raising awareness as much as it expounds on practical conceptual thinking. We finished off with commitment statements that the group will apply all the lessons learnt. As I walked away from the session and reflected on the deep need for this discussion to permeate the lives of many I decided to share this wonderful session with my African Sensei audience immediately.  

We agreed there are many barriers we face in life and work and navigating these successfully is about choice and growth.  Most barriers in our lives are messaged and ingrained in our minds through perpetuating lies handed down through family generations, friends, books and even superstition. However, the 2 key barriers to career development are:

  • Lie – Career Steps Are Supposed To Be A Certain Way

Career ladder

When growing up, we are often told by trusted advisors that career steps move upwards or up a ladder, right? In fact I always provoke HR practitioners who send away candidates purely on the basis of experience in the same industry or experience in a similar role. Careers are diversifying quite quickly and this traditional approach does not serve today’s audience or the millennial generation. Right now companies are rightsizing and jobs are short-term. Companies don’t need perfection, but they want people who are the fastest with the most! The employees who have garnered multiple experiences albeit across different industries or roles are rapidly becoming attractive to companies that want to manage manpower costs while enjoying added value from a leaner, multi-talented team.

Multi-talented individuals have broad experiences and most of all, varied exposures. This, therefore, forms the basis for the fantastic ability to appreciate and bring on board multiple perspectives and accommodate dynamic roles.

  • Lie – You Should Be A Certain Way

Being different

I don’t know about you but I can testify for sure that I have often encountered the dilemma of “who” I need to be, to different people. The world can be very confusing with everyone trying to drive their own agenda through your life. If you allow it, you could be that single vessel expected to carry oil, hot water, ice, milk and perfume simultaneously! Is that even possible? Then what would we call this concoction?

If we all fall foul of this lie, we will never get to understand who we really are at our best and even more importantly, at our worst. We are so busy playing the lead acting role in the movie called life, that we forget to question what is real and what is imagined to be ideal. Ideal is relative. It changes from person to person, institution to institution and from culture to culture. To lock down people into a square or a circle and say to them ‘you must be a certain way in order to fit in,’ is prison outside prison itself.  

Another way this lie exhibits itself is where others set standards based on themselves, for everyone else.  This has led to the wrong connotation of what success and failure look like. I often say to people there are 3 truths, your truth, my truth and the truth!

You are an original, stop limiting yourself to other people’s versions of who you are or should be.


I spent the better part of my December vacation under the coastal sun of Mombasa taking in the cold breeze from the ocean. One afternoon, I was seated at the beach with a friend chatting, when I noticed a string of ants making their way past where we were seated. Curious, I followed the little procession and noticed that it went beneath a rock, around stationary beach bench and finally ended at the root of the tree and probably continued into the inner bark. The ants tried as much as possible to stay out of the humans’ way to avoid being crushed underfoot. My friend laughed at the curious wonder of nature exclaiming how the tiny, pesky insects have a knack of existing and surviving anywhere on the face of the earth. I heartily agreed with her, but soon changed the subject to more interesting things.

Later in the evening, as I reflected on the goings on of the day in my hotel room, the little ants came to mind again. With the rigorous activities that take place on the beach, their lives must be in danger every time they venture out to gather food. Even when their procession is cut short by a barefoot, a camel foot or even a bike, the survivors still struggle to get the food home to their queen. The colony’s survival depends on a constant supply of food and the worker ants have to learn how to thrive in order to ensure the survival of their colony.

We all need to learn different ways of achieving our success in whatever work environment we find ourselves. The ants on the beach and those in Bara all have to survive regardless of the environment they find themselves in.

My point here is, the ants have mastered the art of thriving. So should we all. Here are great pointers on thriving.

  • Identify a ‘Colony’


What is it that you work so hard for? What makes all your hustle worth it? It could be your family, your kids, your career goals, etc. Your colony is what gives you purpose and makes you push forward despite the challenges that you face daily. At the back of your mind, you know you have to do it. Having a ‘Colony’ makes the journey to thriving much easier and faster and protects you when strong waves of life try to wash you away.

  • Blend In

Blending in

Another route to thriving is through blending into the colour and objects of the surrounding environment so that you can begin experiencing a sense of belonging. Blending in could mean learning the language and symbols used in the environment or understanding the hidden meaning behind nonverbal communication.  Try to get the difference between humour and insult as quickly as you can in order to avoid embarrassment.

  • Navigate The Politics

Office politics

Every environment, from corporate to home, school to college, has its own set of politics and politicians!  Many people make the mistake of thinking they can ignore office politics until it disappears. According to Harvard Business Review’s “Guide to Office Politics” it is a matter of survival for the fittest if you want to thrive. Even purists need to appreciate the existence of office politics and the degree of turbulence such an environment might present. In order to thrive, one must understand key stakeholders, formal and informal lines of authority and how the internal grapevine of information transfer works.

Shift Into Neutral

Not all things in life are supposed to be black or white, positive or negative. There is a neutral ground; a grey area. Sometimes in life, you actually need to slow down and take stock of everything. There are certain areas that cannot work without a neutral shift.

  • Career Growth

In regards to your goals, sometimes you need to maintain a neutral ground rather than leaning too hard to the left or right. This is especially applicable when you want your career to grow towards a particular direction. Growth is slow and steady. It requires routine and repetition.

You won’t see it happen, but you will one day realise that you can suddenly do things you couldn’t do before. Or your way of thinking and attitude is no longer the same. You might even realise that your levels of patience, tolerance and accommodative qualities are higher.

Hence, for you to grow, you need to become mundane and continuously put in work at that particular stage. When you morph into the next stage, switch to neutral again and put in work in readiness for growth to the next stage.

  • Handling Feedback

Negative feedback

When handling feedback from people around you, be careful to maintain moderation. If people point out certain negative qualities in you like how overly harsh, judgmental, competitive you are, you need to take a step back.

Step out of your character or self and view the situation objectively. Identify the areas that need to change and make a conscious decision to begin working on it immediately. The reason why you need a neutral shift here is because this quality has been in you probably since your formative years when your personality began developing.

You cannot wake up one day, wave a magic wand and vanquish these negative traits. It will take work, repetition and character alteration.All these can only happen when you are on neutral.

  • Neutral Shift As A Way of Life

Switching to the neutral makes you are calm, meditative and determined. During this time you can actually stop to smell the flowers and reflect on something bigger than yourself. It is then that you will realise the importance of silence. You will learn to think more, listen more, and watch more. You will then understand the importance of the neutral shift in your life.

For you to have a successful career, you will need to learn how to break down barriers, shift to neutral or thrive, when the situation calls for it. Different times and situations call for different actions and it is important to know what to do at any particular time.

Sarah Richson
Global HR Director – Techno Brain Group, overseeing 23 countries spread across Africa, USA, UK and Asia.


  1. This is a powerful article loaded with nuggets of realism. Im glad to have gained something to apply in my day to day life. I’ve realized that we may be imprisoned by our own thoughts even when out of prison! We may also be creating our own barriers!

    • Thanks a lot Emmanuel,
      Apply what you have gained and for sure you will not be disappointed.


  2. I have been gaining ground on several barriers I had locked myself in and your article has accelerated my efforts.
    What do you think is the proper way to try and reason with a superior who is judged to be clearly misleading the team behind him while still remaining professional?

    • Hi Jesse,
      Thank you for reading.
      In such case you must be very careful whom you want this information to pass to because if you just disclose it unknowingly to anyone you might end up in problems. Another important thing to consider is, do you have enough evidence to proof how you are mislead because by deciding to take matters into you own hands without proof then it will also bring problems so if its beyond your control, just leave it. The truth always finds its way out.


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