Overcome These 5 Biases to be More Successful at Any Job

Whether they help you or hurt you is your choice

Photo: Stephen Leonardi/Unsplash

“If you’re trying to succeed in a job or a relationship or at a task, you’re either moving forward, falling behind, or standing still. There are only three choices,” wrote Seth Godin. Whether you’re starting out, starting over, and looking to take that next step in your career, these same three choices apply.

Easily said. Yet not easily done.

Finding a new job is hard, regardless of your age or background. Starting one is even harder. Changing careers, or even taking a new position within the same industry, brings a whole host of new challenges. Not the least of which is adapting into a new area and establishing yourself amidst a new team.

Regardless of whether you’re trying to find a new job, starting one, or just looking to make the best impression with your new team, you need to start on solid footing. You need to establish trust early.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always as straightforward as it should be. While everyone wants to develop trust and quickly prove themselves at work, many end up falling short. Not due to a lack of effort, but because they’re focused on the wrong areas. Because they fail to account for the biases that influence people every day.

We tend to associate biases with discrimination and prejudice. But everyone’s susceptible to them in some manner. Our minds are constantly looking to save energy. So we develop mental shortcuts to relieve our cognitive burden.

And they work. Our minds save energy. But they also affect our judgments. And they affect how others view us in turn.

So if you’re starting a new job, starting over, or just looking to start the year with the best foot forward, consider whether the following heuristics are holding you back. And start using them to your advantage.

Narrative Fallacy — Live by Your Actions. Not Your Intentions.

“I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened,” Joan Didion wrote on her struggles with journaling, “but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” And while Didion meant it as a counter to perfectionism, many of us perform this same narrative editing in our day-to-day lives. As George R.R. Martin put it, “Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.”

We all tell ourselves stories. It’s how we both make sense of the world and keep our minds entertained throughout the day.

Similarly, when other people think about you, they tell their own story. They’ll tell it to themselves, their peers, and their bosses. Any decision on promotions, raises, job assignments, hiring, or firing comes down to that story.

Any time someone makes one of these decisions, they need to justify it. Even if it’s only to themselves, they want some logic to say they’ve made the right call. So they put together a compelling story that justifies their choice.

The problem comes when the story we tell ourselves differs from the one that others see. Which happens a lot. Because fundamentally, we develop these stories using different information.

People develop stories about us based on our actions. But we create our own based on our intentions.

I didn’t mean to miss that commitment, I was busy taking care of a higher priority. I didn’t intend to say the wrong thing, I had a lot of other things on my mind. I didn’t want to lose my temper on that anti-masker, it’s just been a long week.

I can rationalize away all of these behaviors. But to anyone else, it comes across as unreliable, indifferent, and someone who can’t control his anger.

The solution is to stop giving yourself this out. Stop letting your own best intentions pave that path to proverbial hell. All anyone sees are your actions. Make sure those create a story that you’ll be proud of.

Multiplicative Systems — Learn to Communicate

Quick, what’s 365 x 24 x 60 x 60 x 0?

Hopefully you didn’t need to pull out a calculator to figure it out. You know that the product of any number and zero is zero. And given a pop math quiz on the subject, I don’t doubt that you’d crush it. But when those numbers are replaced with character traits, we stop recognizing this basic law.

We tend to view our skills as additive systems. As if each skill represents an added gain to our overall effectiveness. Yet we’re really operating in a multiplicative system, in which key skills can either magnify — or zero out — everything else you have to offer.

You can have a great work ethic and technical skills, but if you lack integrity, it’s not going to mean much. Or consider a business that adds features to their products while ignoring a poor customer service model. Both of these examples create big fat zeros that override anything else.

The biggest multiplicative skill tends to be the one that’s most often overlooked: communication. Nothing happens if you can’t communicate. You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you can’t communicate them, they’re not much use.

When I started working, I couldn’t communicate well. I couldn’t write. And I couldn’t speak in public. Two big fat zeros were staring me in the face.

I signed up to give presentations. I gave management trainings and fielded Q&As on leadership. I struggled, then I got better.

I started writing. Those first articles were rough. I’m not suggesting this is great by any means, but it’s better than when I started. As our media landscape continues to change, the more forms that you can communicate through, the better.

As more meetings, presentations, and interviews become virtual, the ability to communicate well has never been more critical. Anyone that can quickly and concisely make their point, while hopefully keeping their audience’s attention, can quickly stand above their competition. Practice. Throw yourself into situations where you’ll need to learn. Take classes if that’s easier. Whatever you need to do.

Halo Effect — Give People a Positive Anchor

What do you think of Alan and Ben based on the below characteristics?

Alan: intelligent — industrious — impulsive — critical — stubborn — envious

Ben: envious — stubborn — critical — impulsive — industrious — intelligent

If you’re like most people, you saw Alan much more positively than Ben. Alan sounds pretty good. Stubbornness in an intelligent and industrious person can be a good quality. It gives the impression of someone who persists in the face of challenge.

Ben, on the other hand, sounds like a potential problem. Intelligence and industriousness in someone who’s envious and stubborn can be a major liability.

Most people share these views. Even though the listed traits are identical, albeit in reverse order.

A halo effect occurs when one positive trait dominates our view of someone. It causes us to anchor our impression to that one trait, often excusing other negative behaviors in the process.

When I started in my career, I tried to cultivate the reputation of someone who solved any crisis, regardless of the problem. And if that meant stepping on a few toes, then it was okay. Unfortunately, others saw it differently. The trait that stood out wasn’t problem solver. It was someone who left a bunch of bodies in his wake. Not an encouraging brand.

Most people are willing to give you the chance to prove yourself. They remember what it was like when they were starting their careers and trying to stand out amidst a crowded field. So they’re often happy to keep an open mind…at first.

After that, something’s going to anchor in their minds. With more scrutiny than ever before on workplace behavior, securing a reputation of trust is critical. And that starts with how you carry yourself at all times. Are you someone who’s conscientious and empathetic or someone who’s stubborn and cynical?

People anchor their impressions quickly. Make sure you’re helping them do it with a positive trait.

Loss Aversion — Be Original and Don’t be Afraid to Fail

Imagine that you have $2,000 in your checking account and you get the following question: Would you accept a 50/50 chance of either losing $300 or winning $500?

Do you take the risk and better odds or stay safe and avoid the potential loss?

Now what if you’re asked: Would you prefer to keep a balance of $2,000 or take a 50/50 chance of either $1,700 or $2,500?

It’s the same decision. Yet studies show that most people turn down the first option while accepting the second.

For most people, this loss aversion acts on a ratio of 2:1. We’re twice as averse to losing something as gaining it. Losing $100 tends to have the same emotional impact as gaining $200.

We struggle from this same mindset when it comes to taking any risks. We overly weight the potential loss and use that as justification to maintain the status quo. Yet as Bob Iger put it, “The riskiest thing you can do is just maintain the status quo.”

The issue of loss aversion often comes down to one of framing. Are you framing the question narrowly or broadly? Are you looking at this individual action in isolation or in aggregate? In the above example, the first question focuses on incremental gains and losses — narrow framing. The second offers a broad frame reference point of $2,000 and gives a more balanced perspective for a rational decision.

Life is a series of these gambles. If you view each one individually, through a narrow frame, it’s easy to fixate on the potential loss. But when you recognize that you’ll have a lifetime of similar risks, broad framing across the law of large numbers will help make sure you come out in the black over time.

It’s a crowded world. There are a lot of other people vying for the same success you’re after. The only way to stand out from the group is to be original.

It’s okay to fail. Provided you’re failing towards something. Provided you’re doing it with positive intent. Provided you’re staying true to your values.

Whether you’re starting out or staring over, it takes time to develop your own method. The only way there is by trying new things, taking risks, and seeing what works.

The Map is Not the Territory — Recognize the Complete Situation

A friend of mine wanted to become a zookeeper because she loved working with animals. After a year, she said that 90% of her time was working with unruly zoo customers and trying to keep kids from climbing into the exhibits. She eventually quit in frustration.

Another friend became a college professor because he loved to perform research. He failed to foresee the fact that he’d also need to teach classes and spend time applying for grants. Uninterested in these parts of the job, he doesn’t do them well. And his career’s stalled as a result.

We form maps of potential careers based on how much we like that field. The entire ‘follow-your-passion’ self-help industry is built on this model. Yet very few jobs are one-dimensional. The territory of the day-to-day work is often very different from the map.

I genuinely like my job. I like engineering and I like managing people. But I don’t like it every day. There are plenty of days full of bureaucratic frustration, administrative headaches, and questionable meetings.

Before you develop a simplified map of your dream job, or blindly follow your passion, do your research. Talk to people who work in that job now. Find out the day-to-day actions and understand those routine, mundane tasks that never seem to make it into the recruiting brochure.

Not only is this reality. But if you’re going to be miserable doing the day-to-day work, you’re unlikely to do it well.

Above All — Get Good at What You Do

At the end of the day, excellence will always separate itself out. Regardless of the field, there’s invariably a shortage of top talent. Great companies don’t tolerate mediocrity and they never stop looking for high quality people.

So above all, get good at what you do. Practice. Get feedback. Practice some more. And remember that if you hold yourself accountable to the highest standards, no one else will ever be able to do so.

There’s no substitute for excellence. That’s always the first rule.

After that, remember that everyone sees the world differently. And while we’re usually adept at recognizing biases in other people, we tend to think these same heuristics don’t apply to ourselves.

We’re all biased. We’re all subject to the same traps. So make sure that you’re using them to your advantage.

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