Cutting-Edge Leadership

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4 Reasons Why Smart People Make Bad Career Decisions

Why do people make bad job choices? Why do they get stuck in dead-end jobs?

We all know someone who has made bad career decisions – staying too long in a dead-end job, picking a career they are not suited for, or giving up a good job for a bad one. What are some of the psychological factors in play when making career decisions, and how can we make better ones?

1. Fear of Change and Risk Aversion. This explains why so many people get stuck in dead-end jobs. Many of us choose a “safe” job or career, such as a career with high chances of employment (but one that we don’t feel positive or passionate about), or we are reluctant to seek out better jobs because we are afraid we might risk the one we have.

2. Belief in a Just World. Sometimes, people stay in jobs where they are underpaid or unfairly treated because they believe that eventually things will “even out,” and they will get the rewards that they deserve. Belief in a just world is a pervasive psychological notion possessed by many. The problem is that the world is not always fair, and differential and unfair treatment abounds.

3. Grass is Greener Phenomenon. There is a common, persistent belief that other people are getting a better deal (i.e., more pay, more rewarding work), than we are. I recall working with someone who always told us, “at the [competitor company] the pay, benefits, and conditions are better.” He changed jobs, only to return after a few months, finding out that the grass wasn’t greener elsewhere.

4. Overestimating Our Ability to Impact the Environment. There is a general tendency to believe that we can have greater influence on changing the environment than we actually can. As a result, we think that we can simply work our way out of a bad job situation – persuading our boss to give us a raise, demonstrating our competency expecting that we will be noticed and gain a promotion, etc. The reality is that there are many factors completely outside our control and we need to be aware of and factor into our decision making.

So, now that we’ve seen some of the psychological factors that lead us to bad career decisionmaking, what are some strategies to help us make GOOD career decisions?

1. Critically (and Objectively) Analyze Your Work Situation. Strive for objectivity in assessing your career situation. Ask the advice of others. Explore alternative jobs and career paths. This could include a visit with a career consultant.

2. Be Courageous and Take Some Calculated Risks. To keep from getting stuck in a dead-end job, we need to actively explore alternatives. Keep on the lookout for possible job openings, and consider a new career and/or graduate training. Certainly there are risks involved, but also consider the risks and harm to your stress levels and well-being.

3. Don’t Get Caught up in “Magical Thinking.” There is a tendency to believe that something will “magically” happen to change our circumstances – we will win the lottery, our boss will suddenly discover our true worth and reward us, etc. Realize that change only occurs by taking action.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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