The Bias that Changes Every Career

Let’s talk about a bias that affects every person’s career.

Researchers recently discovered this bias by analyzing nearly 20 years of career data across 57 different countries…then they confirmed it further with two new experiments.

 

What is this bias? Why does it seem to happen everywhere?

To understand it, we first need to acknowledge a couple of basic things about careers.

 

Career trajectory

The trajectory of your career is ideally meant to be driven by your successes and failures.

  • Success leads to jobs, promotions, and advancement.
  • Failure leads to firing, demotion, or reassignment.

 

But the trajectory of your career is actually driven by how your successes and failures are perceived.

  • Successes and failures affect your career when people think they’re due to knowledge, experience, skill, or effort (or lack thereof).
  • Successes and failures don’t really affect your career when people think they’re due to luck or chance.

 

The bigger picture

Of course, we also need to understand the broader economic context.

Are you working during times of prosperity and good fortune, or times of hardship and adversity?

 

These circumstances can directly affect your chances of success or failure.

But that’s not the most important thing.

 

As we discussed earlier, what really matters is how your successes and failures are perceived.

 

 

Biased perceptions of success and failure

What the researchers discovered is that people’s perceptions of success and failure are biased by the macroeconomic context.

  • During hard times successes and failures are more likely to be attributed to circumstances outside of your control (luck, chance, etc.)
  • During prosperous times successes and failures are more likely to be attributed to the person (knowledge, experience, skill, effort, etc.).

 

It doesn’t stop there. These perceptions affect careers, too.

  • During hard times successes and failures have significantly less effect on people’s careers.
  • During prosperous times successes and failures lead to more extreme decisions (people are more likely to be promoted or demoted as a result).

 

For better or worse, there is more career mobility during prosperous times.

Successes and failures both have more of an influence.

 

This bias sort of makes sense.

When times are tough, people do have less control over what happens. At least in some ways.

It’s probably good to show a little understanding.

 

But there are some really disturbing implications as well.

  • It’s harder to consider bad luck as an explanation during prosperous times. When things are going well, bad outcomes seem like they must be someone’s fault, even when they’re probably not.
  • Succeeding during prosperous times should be easier in a lot of ways. And yet somehow, people tend to get more credit for it.
  • People tend to get less credit for success during hard times. Often despite the hard times, when they should probably be getting the most recognition.

 

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