Should you listen to your intuition when making career decisions?

Updated: Oct 8, 2018


Intuition is a fascinating topic. The beliefs we hold about what it is, and where it comes from are very personal, linked to our view of the world. Yet intuition is also where the views of the spiritual and the skeptical come to the surface on practical matters.


Like career decisions.


Should you listen to your gut? Or not? What is your intuition telling you about this career change you're contemplating?

This may sound controversial and strange coming from a coach. But I'm a strong believer that when it comes to job search we should question our intuition more. Hear me out - this is why this is especially true with career decisions:

1. You can't pour from an empty cup


Let's put spiritual definitions aside for a moment. From a purely biological point of view, intuition is a shortcut to information stored in your brain. It's your busy brain's way to give you the answer you need and save energy for the multitude of other jobs it's juggling at the same time. But this has a chance of producing a valid answer only if your brain already stored enough information to support it.


For example, a doctor who saw thousands of patients in his career might only need a few seconds to recognise the illness. A creative idea of an inventor comes from her brain making associations that combine past experience, education and imagination.

Now, how about a situation where you're deciding if to change jobs? We only do so a few times in our lifetimes, major career changes are even less frequent so we're unlikely to have good "data" for our intuition to fall back on. You may have a certain feel about it, and it may be right, but hear me out. Can you go a little deeper in your understanding of what that feeling is about?

I used to work for an audit firm and the term "professional skepticism" is what auditors live by. It's about a questioning mindset, examining the evidence and being alert to conditions that can cause errors or fraud. How can you "audit" the hunch you have to understand better why you have the feeling you do? Can you rule out the possibility that your brain made a shortcut to nowhere, and used a bias instead?


2. "It didn't work for Pete", aka the availability heuristic


When there isn't enough data to support a decision, our brain will use anything that's available. This bias works under the assumption that if something can be recalled, it must be important.

It's like when your auntie thinks your upcoming trip to Vietnam is a bad idea because of her experience of eating an expired summer roll.

If you are thinking of setting up your own business, is the experience (good or bad) of people you know who did it before you influencing you? Would you feel the same if you didn't know that Pete tried and failed?

Follow that thought further... In what ways are you different and unlikely to make the same mistakes he did? To get a full view think of other mistakes you may be more inclined to make that Pete didn't?

3. Unwillingness to cut your losses or "the sunk cost fallacy"

Often a culprit for why change can be so hard. Whether in investing or in our career, we are prone to continue doing something if we have invested a lot in it already. This one is particularly hard to fight since we're biologically hardwired to avoid risk rather than seek reward.

I often hear from my clients that they left it too long, that they wish they changed jobs a long time ago. Someone who invested 10 or 20 years in a career may have a hard time leaving it behind. So they stay, wasting even more of their precious time.

I would question: Is it intuition, or the fear of the unknown? Take a fresh look at your skills, qualifications, strengths as if they just appeared out of nowhere. Where would you put them to work if the past didn't exist?

4. Anchoring, or a "first impressions bias"

I went to a job interview once that went really well. The boss was inspiring and seemed equally enchanted with me and my CV. He gave me a tour around the building as if it was my first day on the job. I was over the moon.

In the next interviews I learnt that the team was underperforming, drowning in admin and that I wouldn't be able to hire anyone new.

But I still wanted the job, chained to that initial impression. Would it be the same if I learnt about the team issues first? Unlikely.Something to watch out for: is there any way in which you could be relying too much on the information you had first? Are you ignoring any information that goes against that initial judgement?

5. Halo effect

It's when one positive fact about a job or a career overshadows everything else, causing you to make a wrong decision. Using a simple example, some consider teaching an attractive career lured by the prospect of having summers off. Respectable firms now have processes in place to prevent hiring managers from choosing candidates based on their "intuition", which could be nothing else than the result of a halo effect, or another subconscious socioeconomic, racial or appearance-based bias. From your point of view, how can you make sure you're considering all aspects of the job, and not being blinded by that ping pong table?

Conclusion

It's worth to develop a habit of questioning your intuition against bias. Ultimately you may make a decision that agrees with your gut, but a bit of scrutiny beforehand can only be a good thing. Especially with an important career decision.

But there are situations where I choose my intuition over my rational mind to guide me. For example, as humans we are able to read and interpret other's emotional state from subtle cues in their body language. We do this quite instinctively, so if you feel someone is lying, there is a good chance they are. So if your new boss has something fishy about him, there is a fair chance your instinct may be right.

The key is to be aware of when your gut is reliable and when it might be not.

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