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Managing Your Biases
6/18/2008 12:09:46 PM
Andrew Zolli is a futurist who spends a lot of time helping companies prepare for the challenges of the 21st century. Recently, he posited four biases that he believes are essential to understanding human behavior. Of course, in today’s world, the word “bias” has a negative connotation, but the dictionary defines it as a neutral term. It is simply “an inclination of temperament.” In other words, a bias is a predisposition we humans have to do or see things in a certain way.
While that’s an important insight for corporations trying to sell us something, it’s also a critical bit of knowledge for those of us who want to accomplish something, especially when that goal involves your work. If you’re trying to forge a successful career, Zolli’s list can help you better understand why you do what you do in trying to reach that goal. It makes you more aware of the actions and behaviors to which you are predisposed in managing your career and that insight, in turn, enables you to analyze the impact of those inclinations on your success or lack of it.
Zolli describes the four biases of human behavior as follows (with some commentary from me):
We bias the personal over the impersonal. We concentrate on that which affects us individually because it most directly affects the extent of our success.
We bias the tangible over the intangible. We focus on that which we can see and/or feel because we believe we have a greater probability of using it effectively.
We bias the present over the past and the future. We devote our attention to today’s reality because it’s the best way to control what is going to happen to us in the future.
We bias desirability over responsibility. We fixate on that which we enjoy because it is the most direct connection to a meaningful and rewarding life.
To a greater or lesser extent, all of us share these “inclinations of temperament.” However, while biases are theoretically neutral, the reality is that they have the potential to mislead us in the management of our careers. They can undermine our ability to achieve our goals by inducing us to make bad decisions or take inappropriate actions. If our biases are left unchecked, therefore, they can diminish our success and even push us into failure. Here’s what I mean.
Biasing the personal over the impersonal. Obviously, each of us wants what’s best for our own careers and for our families who depend on us. Ironically, however, the key to a successful career is not the WIIFM factor: What’s In It For Me?. It is, instead, to adopt exactly the opposite perspective. I call this alternative perspective the WIIMF factor: What Input Insures My Future? The people who experience the most fulfilling and rewarding careers look for ways to contribute their talent to the success of the organizations that employ them. They don’t focus on getting the most out of their employers, but on giving the most to them. And that selfless inclination makes them extraordinarily more self-sufficient. No employer wants to lose or overlook a top performer, so a commitment to being the best you can be for your employer is the single best way to take care of yourself and your family.
Biasing the tangible over the intangible. More often than not, the one tangible that most influences our career decision-making and direction-setting is our paycheck. Not only do we live in a consumer-based economy, but today, the cost of living is rising before our very eyes. For many of us, therefore, the primary goal in our career is the maximization of our compensation. That focus, however, can actually have exactly the opposite effect. When you make pay the key factor in accepting one job over another, you potentially subject yourself to a daily grind that disappoints and frustrates you. If work is simply something that you must endure to get a paycheck, your performance will inevitably slip and, eventually, so too will what you earn. What’s the alternative? Focus on the nature of the work. Find jobs where you are engaged and challenged and have a chance to perform at your peak. That’s the kind of employment that optimizes both the paycheck and the happiness you bring home from work.
Biasing the present over the past and the future. The way most of us manage our careers is by paying attention to our job security in the present. We prefer the devil we know—our current employer—to the devil we don’t because that eliminates uncertainty and the need to change. Relying on the present for our continued wellbeing, however, can actually have exactly the opposite effect. In the current global marketplace, employers are banged back and forth by market forces they can’t control or even influence. As a result, they can (and do) promise job security, but they can’t deliver it. The only goal that makes any sense, therefore, isn’t job security; it’s career security. You have to keep an eye on the health of your career in the present and make sure that you avoid occupational obsolescence in the future. Since the state-of-the-art in every field is always advancing, you should continuously prepare yourself for the new responsibilities that development creates. You are, in essence, a work-in-progress that’s never done. Yes, that means you can never coast in your career, but it also removes the limits on where you can go and what you can do in your work. You have the security of being employable at every point in your career.
Biasing desirability over responsibility. In these times of ever more pressing employer demands, many of us are paying more attention to the maintenance of a healthy work-life balance. We seek this “benefit” because we want to preserve our personal health and the health of our relationships outside the workplace. Our determination to strike such a balance, however, can actually have exactly the opposite effect. The term work-life balance, itself, implies that work is an onerous activity that must be offset with other, more desirable activities. When you accept this view of your work—whether you do so implicitly or explicitly—you consign yourself to a sweatshop-like career. You agree to 30 years or more of tedious, unfulfilling and fundamentally abusive work. On the other hand, when you accept the responsibility for ensuring that employment provides the opportunity for you to express your inherent talent in meaningful challenges on-the-job, you re-imagine your work as some of your best time. When you make it your job to find the right jobs for you, you transform your work into an exercise in self-fulfillment. It doesn’t need to be balanced, therefore, but simply integrated with the other important aspects of your life.
If Zolli is correct about these biases—that they are inherent characteristics of the human species—then we must be cognizant of the angst they can cause in our careers. Rather than be alarmed by that knowledge, however, we should embrace it. The wonderful thing about the human species is that we can learn from ourselves. We can acquire self-knowledge and use that insight to change our direction and reform our biases so that they benefit rather than harm us. That’s my prescription for a healthy and rewarding career.
Thanks for reading,