Why Your Brain Hates the Job Search
Five ways the job search brings out the lizard in our brains.
Posted July 22, 2016
Let’s face it. Do you know anyone who actually enjoys the job search process? I don’t. When you choose to conduct a job search, you are thrown into a foreign land that can be complex, confusing, and sometimes downright unpleasant. And when you are seeking a job due to a sudden change in your life (graduation, newly divorced, or laid off/fired), you are likely in a situation not of your choosing, making the process even more frustrating.
Our lizard brain (the fight/flight/freeze part) pretty much goes into overdrive in the job search. Our brains are constantly asking “Is it safe?” and unfortunately, during a job search, the brain’s reply is often, “No.” The job search process is fraught with psychological landmines—from fears of rejection to bouts of procrastination to self-esteem challenges to attacks of perfectionism. And that’s just on your end. What happens when many of the problems are with the potential employer and we can’t do anything about them?
The first reason our brains don’t like the job search is Lack of Control. Our brains like to be in control, or at least feel like we’re in control. Our brains like certainty and a job search brings up lots of uncertainty. We don’t know who the other candidates are or how the process works (other than submitting the requested materials). We don’t know if one person is making a decision or a committee. We are often at the mercy of a system which isn’t open or transparent. We don’t know how long the process will take. So much of our control is taken away from us.
Another thing our brains don’t like is Unfairness. When we don’t know how or why someone is selected for a position, we wonder if the process is “fair.” And because there’s more art than science to much of the selection process, human judgements and unconscious “gut feelings” can play a major role. Which means mistakes get made. Job seekers tell me all the time they are frustrated when they learn an internal candidate received the offer—why did the employer even bother going outside the firm when they hired from within? (Generally, an employer wants to make sure they are making a correct decision, and wants to see other talented individuals who might be available. The internal candidate often has an advantage and a disadvantage—they are well-known so that can be good or bad. So it’s not quite as clear, or unfair, as you might think.) But the lack of transparency, and the selection of a candidate who doesn’t seem as qualified to the outside observer, can lead to feelings of unfairness. And our brains really hate things that are unfair. Feelings of unfairness tend to travel the same neural pathways as feelings of pain. So we physically hurt when we feel something is unfair, according to David Rock.
Our brains don’t much like the Unknown either. Fear of the unknown prevents many individuals from moving forward with a job search. The old saying, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” keeps many people from reaching out for new experiences. You don’t know if your next employer will be your next nightmare (by the way, the employer is also hoping you won’t be their next nightmare), and you have to take a chance and rely on hope. You hope that the job will be as it was presented to you in the interview. You hope that your new colleagues will be enjoyable to work with, and, if you’re a manager, your new staff will be highly skilled and motivated. But fear of the unknown will keep you stuck in your present role.
Concerns about colleagues, bosses, and subordinates bring up another thing our brains hate: Rejection and Social Exclusion. We want to belong. We want to be accepted and be part of a group. We want to know that our new employer will be as (perhaps more) accepting of us as the previous employer. We want to work with colleagues who are, well, collegial. And we want to find new friends. After all, a Gallup poll found that having a best friend at work is one of the key determinants of job satisfaction. So we’re not only searching for a job; we are searching for an environment in which we can feel safe, welcome, and supported.
Finally, the job search requires you to perform myriad diverse tasks you may not have had to do previously or haven’t done in a long time. (Not to mention the sometimes ridiculous expectations of the employer.) And you have to perform all aspects of the search perfectly, or at least as perfectly as possible. Strong writing skills, social media acumen, networking (people) skills, and storytelling expertise are all invaluable parts of the search and we’re not equally excellent at all those skills. In fact, if you’ve been away from the job market for a while you might be surprised at the increasing emphasis on social media—and find yourself on a sharp learning curve to bring your social media up to par. I often find that introverted job seekers enjoy the resume/cover letter-writing process and don’t enjoy the interviewing/networking portion—and extraverts report the opposite. Our brains usually prefer one mode of communication over another, and it is stressful to be pulled into situations where we can’t stick with our preferred/dominant mode. Preparing all the materials for the search can kick up a lot of problems from perfectionism to “comparison-itis”—leading to procrastination.
Even though the job search is fraught with experiences your brain hates, your brain also hates being bored, unfulfilled, and stuck, so read the next blog post, where I present ways to work with your “lizard brain” and help it feel safe during the search process.