Surprising ways you're sabotaging your career, according to science

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5 Workplace Habits That Are Sabotaging Your Career


You know that bad-mouthing your boss is a surefire way to put your job in jeopardy. Same goes for missing deadlines or blowing off a meeting with a key client. But fascinating new research has also pinpointed counterintuitive ways you could be inadvertently sabotaging your own success.

After all, who would have guessed that standing up for your convictions could lead to costly errors in the workplace? Or that making sure everyone sees how much effort you're pouring in might undercut your shot at a promotion? Well, if you're trying to climb the ladder using these seemingly savvy moves, science proves that they may actually knock you down a rung or two.

Want to find out more? We delved into some of the most exciting recent research findings and asked experts to weigh in on their implications for your career.

Self-Sabotaging Move #1: You Stick to Your Guns

Flip-flopping may be a bad word in politics, but at work, shifting your opinions to incorporate the latest intel is crucial to success. After all, in order to make smart decisions, you have to keep an open mind. But that's easier said than done. A University of Iowa study revealed that, even when shown evidence to the contrary, we tend to cling to our initial beliefs ... and that can end up costing us big-time.

Researchers looked at student traders participating in an online futures market. The young investors bought and sold contracts to predict movie box office performance and wrote reports explaining the reasoning behind their forecast for each film. But once the opening weekend numbers were in—which is often considered a strong early indication of which movies will be hits versus flops—the traders stuck to their original estimates even when the data suggested they'd made the wrong call.

Psychologists call this behavior confirmation bias, and it can get you into trouble. People will seek out, recall and interpret information that upholds their existing beliefs, despite being presented with evidence to the contrary. What's more, jotting down your reasoning further strengthens your propensity to hold on to your convictions, a phenomenon dubbed the explanation effect.

Once people commit themselves to a belief by putting it in writing, they become invested in their story, says Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol. "Because they've put cognitive effort into thinking it out and it makes sense to them, they are reluctant to admit they're wrong. Instead, they find ways to dismiss the evidence and justify their decisions."

The good news is that simply being aware of this cognitive default can help keep you from getting caught up in it in the first place. "Foster a healthy skepticism towards your own ideas, and be open to the possibility that you might be wrong—even though you'd like to believe you're right," Lewandowsky says. Also, it helps to remember that changing your mind based on new evidence is a positive thing and a good skill to practice.

Many people see modifying their POV as an admission that their judgment isn't up to par, and worry it might undercut their authority in the workplace. But it shouldn't be a source of embarrassment. On the contrary, it's irrational to clutch at a belief that no longer holds water; a willingness to reverse course in light of new information is a cornerstone of solid decision-making.

And according to Lewandowsky, once you let go of an idea you've latched onto and see that the world hasn't crumbled at your feet—or at the very least that you haven't been fired or demoted—you'll be galvanized to continue honing a sense of flexibility about your ideas.

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Self-Sabotaging Move #2: You Look Like You're Working Too Hard

There's truth in the saying "never let them see you sweat." Recent research from the University College London School of Management found that people who displayed inherent talent were preferred over those who obviously put their nose to the grindstone.

In the study, participants were randomly assigned one of two readings about an entrepreneur: The first bio highlighted the person's innate gifts, while the second stressed how hard they'd worked to attain success. Next, the participants all heard an actual business pitch. Those who'd been primed by reading about the "natural" judged the pitch more positively and were more willing to invest in the proposition than those who'd read about the "striver."

"Even though the participants said that they placed importance on hard work, those who had read about the [apparently gifted] natural favored that entrepreneur to a greater degree," says Chia-Jung Tsay, study author and professor in organizational behavior at the UCL School of Management.

With that in mind, you may not want to overstress the fact that you killed yourself doing market research or pulled an all-nighter analyzing P&L reports for an upcoming project. Your immediate impulse might be to focus on the challenges you ran into and to discuss all the effort you put in, Tsay says. "But might be more effective not to neglect the natural way through which one achieves success"

While we're definitely not suggesting that you slack off, it might be smart to mention to your boss that brainstorming new slogans was a cinch, and that you wrote up the ad copy effortlessly.

In addition, "don't put in face time just for the sake of it," Tsay says. If you're logging 12-hour days because you think it proves your dedication, you probably aren't doing yourself any favors.

On the flip side, if you're in a management position, be aware of how this bias towards favoring phenoms over workhorses can color your decisions about hiring and promotions. "The scientific literature suggests that differences in achievement are associated with strenuous work and effort, and not with just natural aptitude. We may end up hiring someone less qualified just because they've been identified as a natural, but in the long run that can add up to greater costs to an organization," Tsay says.

RELATED: Career Confidence: 6 Ways to Artfully Self-Promote at Work

Self-Sabotaging Move #3: You're Always the Decider

Although being decisive may seem like an important leadership trait, research into the theory of decision fatigue suggests that making too many choices can backfire. It depletes your self-control, leaving you prone to procrastination, laziness and the risk of churning out grade-D work—not to mention upping your chance of making bad calls down the line. Yikes.

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Surprising ways you're sabotaging your career, according to science

In the past 25 years, one-quarter of companies have reduced the number of layers of management they have, moving toward a flatter, more grid-like management structure.

We've already seen it in companies like Vegas-based e-commerce site Zappos, which eliminated employee titles just over two years ago in favor of a manager-free "holacracy."

"Traditional roles are going to disappear because many workplaces are going to disappear, so the whole structural hierarchical system is going to disappear," said James Canton, PhD, chairman and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures and author of "Future Smart: Managing the Game-Changing Trends that Will Transform Your World." "You'll end up with a system, a network of humans and artificial intelligence, crowd-based intelligence — they're all going to get mashed up."

In May, NPR created a digital tool to calculate how likely it is that certain jobs will be taken over by robots 20 years from now.

Manual-labor jobs appear to be most at risk, while jobs that require empathy, like social workers and caretakers, are least at risk.

A University of Oxford report predicts that "by 2030, let alone by 2050, we'll have lost almost 50% of the workforce to artificial intelligence," said David Price, co-founder of cultural-change practice We Do Things Differently and author of "OPEN: How We'll Work, Live and Learn in the Future."

The Oxford report, which examined sectors most likely to lose jobs, noted that the transportation and logistics industry was particularly susceptible to upheaval thanks to the development of driverless cars by companies like Google.

Even jobs that seemingly require the human touch, like the classroom teacher, are at risk. 

"We're already seeing experiments with this robot in the classroom, and when you ask kids with autism which one they'd rather be taught by, the teacher or the robot, they pick the robot," Price said.

New technology doesn't always mean the loss of jobs. The invention of the printing press actually created a lot of jobs back in the day, said Price, "and we're going to gain jobs as well, but it's guesswork which jobs we'll gain."

Canton predicts a scenario in which humans and robots work side-by-side in the future, where new jobs could include operating artificial intelligence-based technology and old jobs could be augmented by it.

"We're going to need to train people — whether on the factory floor or in a call center — how to use A.I. smarter," Canton said. "So right now the era of using these knowledge bases is kind of cumbersome, but over the next decades artificial intelligence will sense what somebody is asking a customer and will help the human operator provide better service."

It's cheaper for employers, who have an entire world of workers at their fingertips, to hire freelancers as needed rather than full-time employees, as it doesn't involve a lengthy hiring process or require them to offer benefits like health insurance or social security.

Many workers are also starting to opt for freelance employment over full-time employment, giving them more jurisdiction over the hours they work and the jobs they take on.

But Price cautioned that this dynamic has the potential to exploit the labor force. Are workers choosing this route because "they want to freelance, or because they can't find a job?" Price wondered. "When companies are outsourcing so many jobs, people say, 'Well, I might as well become freelance because I can't get a job.'"

If the only reason people will freelance is because companies don't want to hire and pay full-time workers,"What kind of a society are we going to be getting?'" Price asked. "Are corporations going to employ a living wage, or are governments going to have to force that?"

People are living longer, and the cost of living keeps going up, requiring many to keep working much later in life. Younger generations also aren't saving money for retirement the way their parents' generation did, because they can't afford it.

"I think people will live and work as long as they're capable," Price said.

But advancements in medical treatments and remedies to the negative health effects of aging could mean people are more energized and suited to working at older ages, according to a report on the future of work by financial-insurance provider UNUM.

A "future of work" report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that people will continue shifting away from the one life, one career mentality — an already observable trend among millennials. Workers will follow their passions as they change, and for many that also means changing careers.

But another driving force behind the phenomenon is a demand for social consciousness: Are companies ethically minded? Do they care about their customers, their environment, their employees?

Corporations "have to have more of a social purpose," said Price, "because people are much more ethically aware now, and people won't invest in companies that don't have a strong ethics." Companies have to prove that they're worth the time of their workers — that they have missions, values that they're invested in, and goals for becoming socially responsible in order to attract and retain employees.

The PwC report also envisions a world in which employers can monitor and screen their employees at a much more advanced level: "Sensors check their location, performance and health," the report states. "The monitoring may even stretch into their private lives in an extension of today’s drug tests."

The Daily Telegraph learned such measures will likely be met with resistance. The British newspaper installed motion detectors in early January to track their reporters but quickly abandoned them after incurring angry blowback. 

"Will companies develop a kind of 'Big Brother' approach to checking on their employees? Possibly, but I think more of them will think they need to be engaged in supporting [their employees]," Price said.

He pointed out how many Silicon Valley tech executives are setting up schools for their kids and their employees' kids in order to provide a better, more tech-focused brand of education.

"These paternalistic philanthropists who want to give their workers housing, keep them out of the pubs, [and] look after their health" may seem intruding or controlling, Price said, but "it will be in companies' best economic interest ... to play a much more active role in that."

Coworking spaces are becoming more and more popular, not just among freelancers and entrepreneurs but also corporations that can use them to relocate employees. Dissolving the traditional office headquarters would enable companies to hire the best candidates all over the world regardless of proximity to a central company hub.

Social media engagement platform Buffer announced in October that it's getting rid of its office and instead letting employees work remotely or from coworking spaces, which Buffer will pay for.

“With an office, if team members are in San Francisco it can be easy to delay meetings until all team members are in the office. The conclusion we came to is that we should always do the thing we can do immediately," said Buffer co-founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne, adding that digital advances like Google Hangouts or HipChat help Buffer survive by facilitating instant meetings, messages, and face-to-face conversations regardless of employees' locations.

Both Price and Dr. Canton imagine a world in which driverless vehicles could eliminate mass transit and transportation jobs, but on the positive side, these cars could potentially eliminate daily commuter traffic, not to mention crashes and fender benders.

"Cars are going to have V2V, a vehicle-to-vehicle capability, and self-driving cars could be preventing a lot of accidents and saving a lot of lives," Dr. Canton said — perhaps as many as 30,000 a year.

This vehicle-to-vehicle capability, technology that lets cars monitor and communicate with each other, would track the speed of each car and facilitate and ease road congestion, making commutes more efficient and headache-free.

But these technological advancements aren't an excuse for humans to grow complacent and expect computers or artificial intelligence to do all the work — on the road, or in the office.

"The preferred future is not one where machines run everything and we just go on vacation," said Dr. Canton, but rather one where human lives and jobs are made easier by the aid and advance of technology. "Our jobs are being changed because computers and networks can do [some] jobs more efficiently than humans can. That doesn't mean eliminating humans, but it means retraining humans to keep pace with it all."

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"Decision fatigue stems from the hypothesis that willpower operates like a muscle or a limited resource," says Brandon Schmeichel, professor of psychology at Texas A&M University. "Each time you use willpower, you fatigue that resource, and as a result you'll be less successful at other actions that require willpower."

Luckily, there are also easy, actionable strategies to guard against depleting your supply of discipline. That way, when you really need to push yourself to complete a tough assignment, make a strong impression at a meeting, or knock out top-notch work, you'll have plenty of gumption to draw on.

One helpful hint is to become a creature of habit. "To the extent that you can, routinize certain decisions in your life," Schmeichel suggests. Eat oatmeal for breakfast every day, or take a cue from President Obama and wear the same basic uniform to work, rather than spend time deliberating over your outfit every morning. This saves you from pointlessly sapping your decision-making stores.

Next, take occasional breaks. Just like doing three sets of eight bicep curls with a rest in between is easier than powering through 24 reps all in one go, enjoying a brief time-out will re-energize your decision-making capacity. "Research shows people need 10 to 30 minutes to rejuvenate their willpower reserves," Schmeichel says. "Make sure to do something that doesn't require too much effort, such as texting a friend or taking a walk."

Finally, treat yourself to a reward whenever you have to make a series of difficult choices or exercise self-control. "If it pays off, you'll be more likely to do it next time," Schmeichel says. If you're excited about the prospect of grabbing a mocha latte or having your nails done post-project, getting started won't use up as much self-discipline.

RELATED: 5 Outside-the-Box Ways to Combat Work Stress That Really Work

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