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Read The Chaos Theory of Careers Chapter 1 for free here!

Read the first chapter of my new book The Chaos Theory of Careers for free here:

Fear – the major barrier in career development

There is a common psychological factor that is involved in many career-related issues and that is fear. What comes to mind for you when you hear the word fear? For me there are many different images such as of being a child in a dark place, concerns for physical safety, a feeling of nausea and dread that something bad is about to happen to me or to people I care about, a sense of paralysis or inability to act when you need to, the realisation that it is tax time again….

Fear is hard to pin down, and it is often difficult to detect in other people. Simply observing the behaviour of others may give a false impression. Some people can do things that we feel are immensely brave and then we discover the person was acting out of, or in a state of fear. Sometimes it is the opposite, and people who say they are fearful of something, ultimately when confronted with it, display fearless behaviour.

fearful employee

Fear can be classified into: subjective apprehension (e.g. worries), physiological changes (such as tremors in the hands), expressions (e.g. saying I’m scared) and attempts to evade or avoid situations. It can be focused and on-going such as a neurosis of being alone, or a phobia for spiders or it can arise suddenly for instance during an assault. It can also seemingly have no obvious cause or focal point.

Fear presents a major barrier in career development. For many people applying for a job is a key trigger, to the point that some will shake and others will avoid applying for jobs, or not turn up for interviews. Deciding to stay in a job or leave is another career development decision that is often accompanied by fear. Common fears relate to feelings of inadequacy, unpopularity, unfamiliarity, and advancement.

Fear is a major component in a failure to stand up to or to confront rude, aggressive and bullying behavior in the workplace. This applies not only to workplace bullying but also to commerce, where the fear of losing a contract, a licence, client or customer can lead to quite extraordinary behaviours. One of the most common reactions, sadly, is for those who are fearlful to lash out at others who they perceive to be even more insecure than themselves. Think of Basil Fawlty venting his insecurities on Manuel rather than addressing his own problems to get an idea of how people and companies sometimes respond when acting out of fear.

Fear can also be a reason for the very often pitiful feedback given to employees, and communication between people at work more generally. Some people have an enormous sense of dread about giving feedback to others, that results in them either avoiding giving it, or delivering it in a very charged and emotional manner that rapidly gets out of hand, becomes personal and aggressive and undermines the whole purpose of giving it.

Fear stifles some of the most important career behaviours we need to exhibit to be successful in the 21st century workplace such as flexibility, openness, persistence, curiosity, creativity, teamwork, and leadership.

Fear insinuates itself in the most of our lives, so it more a case of mastering fear rather than striving to eliminate or avoid fear. Spending your career running scared of real or imaginary demons is no way to spend a life. A first step might be to reflect on any areas of your career where you hold fears, and to develop strategies to manage that fear, you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. As Mark Twain said, “ Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear”.

Job Hunting and dating a socially or sexually transmitted metaphor?

When I published a book in 2000 saying that job hunting was like dating (Resumes the get shortlisted, by Jim Bright and Jo Earl, Allen & Unwin), I never expected the reverse situation to occur, but apparently my esteemed Herald colleague and expert in all matters sexual, Samantha Brett, thinks so. In a column in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2008 (Turn-offs on the first date, SMH, Friday 30th May), she begins “with first dates feeling more like gruelling job interviews…I’ve decided to help out singletons who are finding it a bit of a struggle”. (Since then a job hunting book based upon the metaphor of dating has been published too, and a google search of blogs finds the idea cropping up all over the place- this metaphor is the new careers socially transmitted disease!!). Now while glossing over why a happily married man like me should be reading Sam’s columns (I only read it for the pictures..), I realised that Sam may have a second career in the sexy world of careers advice, because her tips on dating turn offs all apply equally to job hunting. So lets get to grips with Sam’s tips.

1. Don’t be late. Almost guaranteed to kill your prospects at an interview. Saying you got caught out by traffic/public transport doesn’t cut it these days, savvy people expect it to be an ordeal getting anywhere in Sydney and leave the week before to arrive on time.
He’s rude to the waiters. Sam thinks such people have no respect or common decency, and recruiters are likely to think the same. In careers-speak this means don’t be rude to anyone associated with the organisation you are applying to, and more generally think twice about it in terms of reputational harm at any stage of your career.
He talks about his ex. First date conversations should always be devoid of ex-speak. Exactly the same goes for interviews. Getting into long and involved stories about how you were misunderstood, overlooked and generally done wrong to by your previous or current employer is not a sexy look in an interview. Better to say that all was great, but now is the time to find new challenges, and that you left on good terms.
Don’t go Dutch! Apparently men who don’t for dinner first up are emotionally stingy. In interview terms, don’t make a great fuss about claiming expenses associated with getting to the interview – sure if you are being flown interstate that is generally (but not always) at the employers expense, but demanding the reimbursement of a bus ticket is not a good look, unless you got on the bus in Perth…
Too needy. I have been on interview panels where the applicant has literally begged for the job. It is an unedifying and frankly unsettling experience, and is almost certain to raise questions in the minds of the recruiters.
Anti-feminine. This related to men apparently not liking women being inconsistent in their roles – i.e. wanting to be taken out to dinner (man pays) but not wanting to cook for him. The career equivalent is demonstrating an inconsistency in the role expectations you have of an employer. For instance demanding that you be given flexible hours but complaining that members of your team are “never there”.
Too ditzy. It is interview poison to present as immature, disorganised, eccentric or otherwise whacky. Interviewers haven’t got the time to look behind the ditziness or make allowances. It is not their role. Ditch the ditzy act.
The interviewer. While it is good, even essential to have some questions to ask of the interviewer, it can be a high risk strategy to try to turn the tables and fire a lot of pre-prepared questions at the recruiter. It is fine if you really want to come across as assertive – arrogant even – but appreciate that such behaviour is unusual and could be interpreted by insecure interviews as impertinent, up yourself or indifference.
Unhealthy. I can still to this day recall the applicant who insisted on sharing a blow by blow account of his piles with a panel desperately trying to get the conversation onto higher ground. Never offer comments about your health unless specifically asked.
Presentation. Sadly there is a lot of research suggesting that appearances at interview carry a lot of weight (not unlike me in fact!). Attending to your appearance is important, and getting clothes that fit properly and minimise bulges etc are a good investment in your career. Simple tips here include not wearing blue shirts if you perspire a lot – stick to white. Take a good quality deodorant with you and apply it in the lavatory before you interview. Wear a good quality subtle cologne.

Applying for a job is like dating, ultimately you want the employer at the end of the process to say, “where have you been all of my life”.

Communication and Engagement in the workplace

I learned the hard way that communication in the workplace is all about in-groups and out-groups. I had just got my first proper job as a management consultant in the greed is good 1980s. I entered the office of a colleague (who had been university friend). Our boss was in there with my friend, and looked up and simply said “F___ Off” James” and my friend, in a supine gesture reiterated the instruction in precisely the same terms. Some friend.

Welcome to the world of those in the know and those who don’t matter. On that day I clearly did not matter. However I came to realise that I mattered a little, because the following Monday I arrived at work to find all the desks rearranged in my office and a memo asking me to see the Boss at 9:30am. I soon discovered that I was the last employee to see the boss. Of the 23 that went before me, 12 were sacked. I was given a motivational talk, that essentially said that I would have been sacked if it had not been for the fact that I was “cheap”!!

One of my senior colleagues clearly did not matter, because soon after my interview the boss was personally removing this guy’s name plate from what was his office door with a screwdriver! The colleague was obliged to see out a notice period sharing the general office with the administrative staff. Needless to say, I took the first opportunity to get out of the company and made a vow to avoid working in secretive and bullying work environments where possible.

Despite the torrent of rhetoric about open communication in the workplace over the last 20 years, my observation is that there are still many organisations where information is withheld from people either to bully or manipulate them. In nearly all of the cases I see, there is no good business case for keeping people in the dark, indeed it inevitably breeds insecurity, suspicion and resentment.

In companies that announce sudden layoffs, the excuse for the surprise element is often some vague reference to the market and competitors or management were worried about staff leaving prematurely. Rarely have such reasons got any merit, and often they simply mask a desire to manipulate staff for managerial advantage, to avoid any discussion or justification, or simply because the management is incompetent.

The problem with the “just get on with your job” approach to employees wanting to know what is going on, is that it is often the very job they are being told to get on with that is about to disappear or alter radically. The questions that many ask when kept in the dark, is what are they up to and why am I not being consulted? These are not the questions that engaged and productive people ask, they are the questions that disengaged and alienated people ask.

Communication difficulties are not restricted to management failing to keep staff informed, equally problematic are cultures where feedback is discouraged or it results in over-reaction, personalisation and vindictive reprisals. Sadly, it is not uncommon for overly sensitive managers to use performance evaluations or disciplinary policies as methods of stymying open and frank communication.

Engagement is probably the buzz word of the moment for employers operating in a tight labour market, yet one of the most effective ways of creating engagement is to take the radical step of talking to staff openly, honestly and regularly. When I get called in to help companies with people issues, one of the first problems I typically encounter is a culture of poor or mis-communication. Employment is a relationship, and like all human relationships they thrive on good communication.

Chaos Theory of Careers and Edward Lorenz

On Wednesday 16th April 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts a meteorologist died. You may wonder why this event that appears so distant in time, space and relevance to your career development should be noted in this column. Well, the meteorologist in question was called Edward Lorenz, and he is commonly agreed to be the founding father of chaos theory. His great contribution was to demonstrate the limits in theory and practice of long range predictions in complex dynamic systems like weather patterns. In particular he is associated with the butterfly effect – the observation that small changes in the initial conditions of systems can have profound outcomes – described by Lorenz in the question, if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, does it cause a tornado in Texas?
The relevance to career development is that the weather system is not the only dynamical system, it fact we are surrounded and composed of such systems. Indeed we can think of our careers in these very terms and that is what myself and my colleague Robert Pryor have been working on for the best part of the last decade – The Chaos Theory of Career Development.
The weather system provides a good metaphor for career behaviour. The first thing to point out is that when we try to understand the weather we think in terms of patterns – weather patterns. For instance most of us in Australia are all too familiar with the weather patterns such as an East Coast Low, a Southerly buster, and the bigger patterns such as El Nino and El Nina. All of these weather patterns may have had a direct impact upon the career development of some of us. It would not hard to find farmers, or suppliers of watering systems who have gone out of business due to the droughts caused by El Nino. Others can lose their livelihoods sustaining uninsured losses caused by the storms created by an East coast low or a southerly buster.
The second point is that while there are broad patterns in weather systems – for instance, Summer and Winter, trying to predict the weather for any specific period becomes extremely difficult, and trying to do it more than a week or so in advance gets closer and closer to impossibility as the time horizon moves out. Just consider what has laughingly passed for our summer this year or think about the mad scrambling of warning messages from the Bureau of meteorology given the thankless task of trying to predict the path of storm cells across a city. Finally, Lorenz’s butterfly example that seemed so crazy back in 1972 when he published it, doesn’t seem crazy at all, when we consider how small variations in ocean temperature near South America appear to be related to drought or floods in New South Wales.
In the past we have sought predictability in our career plans. We have visited career practitioners expecting some form of fortune telling. We have interviewed staff for jobs with the asinine question “where do you expect to be in 5 years time?” However these appeals to predictability are not borne out in practice, where it has been demonstrated time and again, that the vast majority of us experience unplanned events that significantly influence our careers, and that those who are in jobs that closely match their predicted interests are no happier or more productive than others in the same role but whose interests do not fit with the predictive model.

The Chaos Theory of Careers asserts we should consider our careers much in the same way we think about the weather. That there are broad patterns of relative stability, but at the same time there are significant patterns of instability and that trying to predict much in advance is futile. Rather we should adopt the same approach that we do with the weather. Continually monitor the patterns, develop coping strategies to weather the storms, and rest career plans on seasonal patterns. That means recognising that although you had planned for a “summer” job, “summer” actually turned out to be more like “winter”.
This approach to careers emphasises that we need to be actively engaged in planning and revising our careers on an on-going basis, and that developing strategies to embrace and thrive on unpredictability and change will be more successful than relying on a long term prediction or plan. Vale Edward Lorenz.

Career improvisation

Making it up as you go along is probably one of the most effective success strategies you can implement. The trouble is that patrons of the predictable try to brainwash lesser mortals like you and me with their grand narratives (tall stories) about how anyone can achieve complete control of their lives. These narratives are eagerly devoured by those wanting quick and simple solutions and those who feel the cold chill of accountability for past and future action in their roles.
Making it up as you go along is an anathema to the controllers and quick-fix folks, and those who employ this strategy consciously often have to conceal it with a cloak of plausibly logical actions whereas many use it without being completely aware of it and suppress it under a cloak post-hoc rationalisation. Making it up as you go along is seen as somehow illegitimate, shallow, ill-considered, reckless even. Merchants of mediocrity will try to sell you their flow diagrams and 7 point plans. They will encourage the use of pros and cons lists, planning tasks and simple formulas for success. They push the view that if the plan cannot be articulated in every detail, it has not been “thought through” or is the product of a fuzzy and unsound mind. We all love and draw confidence from a well-thought out plan.
With colleagues Robert Pryor and Tony Borg, we have developed a butterfly model of career development. Imagine a race track in the shape of a figure of 8 on its side that you are continuously driving around like a race track. Each journey around the circuit never exactly repeats any other. Do this for long enough and what results begins to resemble a butterfly and hence the name of the model. Imagine now that the left-hand circle on the track represents all your planned behaviour and the right hand circle of the track represents all the unplanned behaviour.
What it demonstrates is that career development is a continually developing series of planned actions which are impacted by unplanned events which in turn lead to revisions or new plans, which in turn are impacted by the unexpected and so on. The model is slightly more complex because you can circle around for periods in either the planned bit of the circuit or the unplanned bit, and then move unexpectedly into the other realm. This explains why in life we can experience periods of relative calm and predictability, and others that seem to be never ending turbulence. Overall, the point is that there is an ongoing and inevitable relationship between the predictable and the unpredictable, between pattern and surprise and between composition and improvisation.
Making it up as you go along is often called improvisation. Improvisation implies there is a structure around which you can improvise. Improvising without any framework at all simply results in a self-indulgent blast of white noise that achieves nothing other than to alienate all who witness it. There is a saying in jazz circles “improvisation is composition speeded up, and composition is improvisation slowed down.” It implies that improvisation ultimately has rules and structure, but these are loose or fuzzy enough for creativity to be invited in.
Often in jazz, the musicians establish the structure of the piece (“the head”) and then the musicians improvise around that. It is not a bad way of thinking about yourself or your organisation as a beautiful complex composition around which you can improvise.
Why is it some people seem to be able to make it up as they go along, whereas others struggle or are scared of this approach? Part of the answer lies in the concept of life purpose. Those who have a clear sense of life purpose will intuitively act in ways that keeps intact their sense of purpose, and hence purpose becomes the force that drives, directs and limits action. In a sense knowing your purpose is a bit like being able to recognise your essential tune (or core business for an organisation) – it provides the structure and sets the boundaries for improvisation. Purpose is not about goal setting, purpose defines what can become a goal, goals do not define what can become your purpose.
Getting a sense of the bigger pattern, the linkages, the limitations and the opportunities will help to inspire confidence to improvise and will also increase the likelihood that the improvisations are bold, original and creative. In other words successful.

Careers and Movies

Career counselling advice doesn’t have to come from the usual sources, but can be found in film if you know where to look. Films are full of career development observations, which can assist us in developing more satisfying careers. Indeed I wonder given the plethora of careers advice in film whether all those script writers and movie directors are not really seeking a more glamorous life as Career Development specialists. Here are just a few examples of what I am talking about.
If you are concerned that you are getting nowhere with your executive coaching, then Woody Allen’s insight in Annie Hall, “I’ve been going to my therapist for 15 years and just whined” may resonate with you. Clearly here Allen is rueing the unethical practice of stringing out clients in endless sessions that benefit the coaches hip-pocket more than you.
Job hunters have a rich array of films to choose from if they need inspiration or advice. I always start my job hunters off with the keen observations made in that career development classic, The Wizard of Oz. Readers will be no doubt familiar with Munchkin Land which of course is a thinly disguised commentary on the occasional practice of some employers to gild the lily in describing their workplaces. This is a land where everything is larger or smaller than life and everything is depicted in lurid bright colours. Indeed it reminds me a lot of some of those job advertisements from one-eyed employers who think they are offering you a truly magical experience. Of course when you arrive at work you realise like Dorothy “that this isn’t Kansas”! Indeed the tag line from the 1939 movie could even serve as a modern employers enticement “Gaiety! Glory! Glamour!”
If you are looking for a riposte on your way out of an interview where your CV has been questioned, you could do no better than the tag from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid “”Not that it matters, but most of it is true.
If of course your fate is to be a politician dealing with malcontent backbenchers, perhaps you would identify with the tag “Unspeakable Horrors From Outer Space Paralyze the Living and Resurrect The Dead!” from that unspeakable shocker from the 1950s… no the other one…”Planet 9 from outer space”
While we are on the subject, the tag lines from the movie The Wild Bunch seem to have been exceptionally prescient advice for our former government. The tag lines to that movie were: “Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place and desperately out of time” and “Nine men who came too late and stayed too long…” If only the former federal ministers had spent more time at the National Film and Sound Archive, their own career development issues might be less pressing today.
Graduates can sometimes be pampered by keen employers, and perhaps inevitably a whole film was devoted to their career development, and I am not talking about Slackers but the movie with the tag line “This is Benjamin. He’s a little worried about his future”, indeed the whole film, The Graduate by Mike Nichols is worth a look.
Proud parents with lofty expectations for their offspring, might find inspiration from the tagline “From the day he is born, Patrick Smash baffles his family and teachers alike with his special gift” from the art house movie Pantalon de tomberre aka Thunderpants!
There is also help for career coaches to be found in films, and I have certainly seen clients who fit the tag from Five Easy Pieces “He Rode The Fast Lane On The Road To Nowhere.” Plus there are plenty of occupations that have been well-captured in movies. For instance, how about “Lie. Cheat. Steal. All In A Day’s Work.” from Glengarry Glen Ross which might prove to be a useful movie experience for ICAC executives. Surely all second-hand car sales people will relate to “Everything is suspect…everyone is for sale…and nothing is what it seems.” From L.A. Confidential.
Finally, movie critics also have transferable skills in career development. Is it just me, or can you see that there is a glorious future for Margaret Pomerantz and David Stratton from the ABC’s At the movies beckoning in Executive coaching? I can see them now sitting on an interview panel, giving your performance ratings out of 5.