Our ambition can be derailed by time-sink activities such as email and pointless meetings, as well as our fear of rejection
Our ambition can be derailed by time-sink activities such as email and pointless meetings, as well as our fear of rejection © FT montage; Dreamstime

The writer isthe founding director of The Inclusion Initiative at the London School of Economics

As a behavioural scientist I can say for sure that a lot of the actions I take at work are hampered by my own cognitive biases. These include actions I take that determine the speed at which I progress my career.

Before you judge me, let me tell you that you are the same as me. As individuals, we often hold a belief that we are acting purposefully when we are not. We are not as rational as we think.

How do our own cognitive biases hold us back? If you are working hard for a large company, a good demonstration of cognitive biases in action is to ask yourself why you are not going for promotion.

Is it because the promotion criteria are unclear and you want to make sure that you more than exceed them? Once you have thought about it, take a step back.

What is the rational decision to make about going for a promotion? If I am rational, it means that I weigh up the costs and benefits of each decision I make. I want to get the benefits of a promotion as soon as I can. I want the extra income and the status. In the case of criteria being unclear, then shouldn’t I go for promotion even earlier? I should take a chance, right?

If you know, rationally, that all the above are true but you still don’t go for a promotion then you are probably overestimating the costs of getting turned down (rejection, pain, embarrassment, gossip and so on) and underestimating the benefits of being successful. Why? You are suffering from anticipatory loss aversion.

For most of us, the anticipation of rejection is so bad that we don’t put our hat in the ring as often as we should. Anticipation is a life experience in and of itself. However, the actual experience of rejection is never as bad as we anticipate. We get it wrong. As human beings we are good at imagining the pain of rejection, but underestimate our amazing ability to bounce back. The emotional fallout is much briefer than we imagine.

There are many other examples of occasions where we are solely responsible for holding ourselves back. I have suffered from myopia, being overfocused on short-term career goals, such as my next promotion and pay increment.

I have lost sight on where my career journey is taking me and missed golden opportunities to advance. Always keep an eye on the bigger picture.

I have spent too much of my day engaged in time sinkers. By time-sinkers I mean unnecessary emails, office politics, pointless meetings and spending ages selecting a font for a power-point.

Seven career-building life hacks

Set a ‘big thinking’ goal

Don’t fall into the trap of only working towards your next promotion. Set a big thinking goal that you plan to realise over the medium term: the perfect cure for myopia.

Make a 90-minute weekly commitment 

Over the medium term this is long enough to build a new skill or participate in networking events. Steal this time away from time sinkers and grow.

Circumvent planning fallacy

Scale up the timings on your to-do list by 1.5 to avoid failure and tardiness.

Quieten anticipatory loss aversion 

Stop focusing on “success” versus “failure”. Focus on your own decision making, which you can control. If you never shoot for a goal you cannot score. 

Create a diverse personal boardroom

The easiest way to avoid confirmation bias, grow quickly and identify new opportunities is to seek regular feedback with people with diverse life experiences.

You are not in the spotlight as often as you think

Quieten imposter syndrome and grab opportunities safe in the knowledge that if you fluff up no one is likely watching. 

Your colleagues are busy

Don’t assume the people around notice your progress. Join the dots to ensure your value add is noticed and rewarded.

On previous occasions when my career journey desperately needed critical feedback, I sought advice from “people like me” and bathed in the confirmation bias that washed over me validating my pre-existing beliefs. This type of counsel serves ego but not our futures. 

I still grossly underestimate how long it will take me to do some tasks, falling victim to the planning fallacy, which happens because we humans tend to believe our plans will follow a best-case scenario.

At various phases in my career, I have felt like an imposter and avoided putting myself forward for promotions, despite having the credentials. I have also worked incredibly hard, with the expectation that at the right time someone would come and bestow on me the salary and accolades I duly deserve. Spoiler alert: this doesn’t happen. To anyone.

The acknowledgment that our own biases are holding us back is not a bad thing. If you are feeling stuck, it is freeing. You can take control. You can mitigate the biases that are hampering your progress. What is more, this mitigation does not require a huge effort.

This is not to negate the setbacks when you bump up against other people’s biases: being passed over for a job because your face doesn’t fit, receiving a lower salary simply because you are a woman or having your stellar pitch ignored because the judges were hungry or reporting to the dreaded mediocre manager.

However, if I am truly self-reflective, I would put the ratio at 80 (my own biases): 20 (biases of others). By this I mean that I can take control of 80 per cent of the cognitive biases that impact my future.

Taking control in this way allows me to deliberately choose my version of success. You can and should do the same.



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