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Don't Believe In Fairy Tales

For decades, economists celebrated the rational person. It was their view that people would always make the intelligent choice - do what was in their best interests - when making a decision that would affect their economic wellbeing. Then, in the 1970s, two psychologists debunked that idea and one went on the win the Nobel Prize, in economics no less, for doing so. Turns out, we humans aren't as clear headed as we think we are, and that truism offers an important message for recruiters.

Daniel Kahneman and his collaborator Amos Tversky conducted a series of experiments that proved we humans do not always live our lives to "maximize utility." Instead, the rational side of our brain, which is lazy and tends to tire quickly, often defers to the emotional side, which is quick to act and doesn't let facts get in the way. Kahneman describes these different approaches as "thinking, fast and slow," which just happens to also be the name of his new book.

Why is this distinction important to recruiters? Because, all too often, we let the emotional side of our brain guide us in the management of our own careers.

Our rational mind will collect facts, analyze their importance to and potential impact on us, and then determine a course of action which will maximize their benefit for us. In the case of recruiters, these facts include the following:

  • While the economy is recovering, it is still vulnerable to being thrown back into a recession or worse by such world events as the financial crisis among the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) in Europe and the price of oil should a conflict break out in the Middle East.

  • Thanks to intense competition in the global marketplace, employers are now quick to act whenever the economy slows, and the first step they take is to cut labor costs, and among the first categories of labor to see their jobs disappear are recruiters.

These facts are real and have the potential to harm or even derail our career. Yet, as Kahneman notes, many of us ignore them. We let the emotional side of our brain take over, and it is guided by what he calls "a pervasive optimistic bias" - a hard-wired positive outlook that colors our perceptions of both the world around us and its prospects for our own lives.

Despite the facts, we assume (a) our employer will always be a healthy enterprise, (b) our supervisor will always make intelligent and unbiased decisions, and (c) our job will always be there for us. We are smart enough to know otherwise, but we choose to believe the fairy tale.

Making the Rational Choice

In a workplace governed by uncertainty and the looming threat of unemployment, no rational person would ignore taking steps to protect themselves from such eventualities. Yet, many of us in recruiting, focus so exclusively on doing our jobs, we ignore our careers. We devote 8, 9, 10 hours a day, 5, 6 and sometimes even 7 days a week to maximizing the benefits for our employers and thus have no time or energy left to do what might benefit us.

I would respectfully suggest that's irresponsible or as Kahneman would describe it, irrational. It exposes our job, our career and our family to unnecessary risk and potentially grave harm.

What should we be doing?

Delivering the best work we can for our employer - building job security - and putting equal priority on the work we do for our own economic wellbeing - building "career security." Or to put it in business terms, we should be loyal to our employers and to ourselves.

Because here's another fact our rational mind should assess:

  • Even when business is slowing and the stock market is falling, there are always segments of the economy that are thriving, so even when the news is filled with gloom and doom, four-fifths of the population is able to find work.

In today's uncertain and hyper dynamic world, making rational decisions about a career is not only prudent, it's absolutely essential to success. We can be as optimistic as we like, but that optimism should always be tempered with a respect for the facts.

Thanks for reading,

Visit my blog at Weddles.com/WorkStrong.

January 2012
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