Harvard Business review

A Measured Approach to Making a Drastic Change

People’s motivations for making big career moves — including changing companies, starting new ventures, and leaving the workforce altogether — amid the Great Resignation vary. The pandemic showed some people that remote and flexible work was possible. It prompted others to reevaluate their priorities, particularly around the balance between work and the rest of their lives. And for some, the pandemic came with a large blinking “YOLO” sign that pushed them past fears that kept them from doing what they had always wanted.

While far from an exhaustive list, these three examples show how profoundly the pandemic has affected how we think about our work. But before we all jump on the Great Resignation bandwagon and make potentially life-altering decisions, a word of caution is in order. We shouldn’t ignore the lessons learned during the pandemic, but we should pressure test these insights against some of the most obvious biases we struggle with and try to avoid getting trapped on the wrong side of a one-way door.

Why we should be careful

Our decision making isn’t perfect. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon taught us that it’s never the fully rational process we’d like to think it is, in part because we’re working with incomplete information. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman also pointed out that our own psychology further biases our decisions. Unfortunately, these factors are playing a large role in people’s thinking during this time of transition.

I recently spent time with two different managers within the same organization, both of whom were looking to change jobs. Jason* wanted to change to a position that allowed for more remote work, citing his increased productivity at home. Helen,* in contrast, was feeling disconnected, out of the loop, and isolated as the only member of her team at her location.

In this “grass-is-greener” scenario, both Jason and Helen focused on aspects of their work situations that were particularly vivid and salient for them individually. What both needed was to take some time to think about the whole picture and weigh the pros and cons of each setup. Almost no job-change decision will be unilaterally good or bad — each offers benefits but comes with costs. As difficult as it is, we need to step outside our immediate contexts to get a more objective view.

Making things even more difficult, the exceptional experiences we’ve had during the pandemic are affecting our psychology. Data shows a clear link between the pandemic and declines in mental health, which can have a very real impact on decision making. I spoke to a manager, Chris,* who had decided it was time to quit and look for a new job. He told me he felt unmotivated and disengaged in his current role — his work didn’t feel meaningful or inspiring and he didn’t see a career trajectory that excited him. Further discussion revealed that Chris’s concerns were less about his current job but more broadly about his state of mind. He was one of the large percentage of employees experiencing a decline in mental health since the pandemic began. In his particular case, discussing with his family helped him realize he was misattributing the cause of his dissatisfaction and that the alternatives he was considering wouldn’t meaningfully address what he felt was missing — and in fact, leaving his current organization would take away a support network he had come to rely on.

Before making a big — and potentially irreversible — career decision, take the following steps to make sure you’re approaching your decision making methodically and thinking about how to reduce your personal risk.

Improve decision input

First, consider how you can improve the data (and interpretation) going into your decision to yield a more accurate outcome.

Start by quickly refreshing your memory on some of the most common psychological biases to increase your odds of recognizing them when they arise. As someone who has taught them for over 20 years, my own decision making is still affected by biases like:

  • Anchoring: The tendency for decisions and estimates to be influenced by a starting reference point or “anchor,” like the asking price on a car or home.
  • Confirming evidence: The inclination to favor information that confirms what we already believe, like noticing and believing news stories that align with our views.
  • Availability: The propensity to over-weight information that’s more “available” in memory due to being more recent, vivid, or emotionally charged. For example, lottery ticket sales tend to increase after a big win is announced.
  • Framing: The fact that our decisions are profoundly affected by how the decision itself is laid out. For example, we’re generally more willing to act to avoid a loss than to achieve a gain.

All of these (and more) are affecting how we approach the critical career decisions we’re talking about.

One of my favorite mantras is “outsource what you’re bad at” — in this case, that’s remaining objective. Outsource to people by discussing your decision (and its parameters) with people you know will challenge your assumptions and therefore counter your biases. Devil’s advocacy is nothing new and may seem like a given, but particularly in tough situations, we tend to retreat to the safety of discussing our ideas with people we feel confident share our views. Look for someone who has no vested interest in your ultimate decision, and remind them that they can only help you by being completely honest.

Outsource to process by putting some structure around how you make your decision. Career decisions are immensely complicated and high stakes — trying to maintain your objectivity while tackling them head on in their entirety is almost impossible. Instead, take a systematic approach to break them down and outsmart them. For example, before you start to think through it, lay out a roadmap of how you will evaluate each of the elements in your decision and allocate a time frame for each. This ensures you won’t miss — or spend too much or too little time on — any piece of the equation. Importantly, nail down your process before starting to think through the decision. That way, you’ll avoid inadvertently reworking your process in a way that reaffirms your biases.

Improve decision output

Next, consider how you can improve the execution of your decision to reduce the downside risk if your conclusion proves wrong.

Even with the best data and processes, we all still sometimes arrive at what turns out to be a sub-optimal conclusion. In light of the Great Resignation, such errors can be particularly costly. Remember, you are your own chief risk officer, so spend some time thinking about how to reduce your exposure if your decision turns out not to be the best one.

One way to do this is to apply a decision-making approach favored by Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson: divide decisions into one-way versus two-way door decisions. Two-way door decisions are those that are relatively easy to undo. Both Bezos and Branson argue that we shouldn’t waste a lot of time deliberating and debating such decisions, but rather try them out and then roll them back if needed. Two-way door decisions are great opportunities for learning. In contrast, one-way door decisions are those that are difficult (if not impossible) to reverse, and therefore worth the time and effort to carefully consider and evaluate all options prior to making the decision final.

The first question to ask, therefore, is whether the career change you’re contemplating is a two- or one-way door decision. Maybe you’ve wanted to start a side business or transition to a new role within your current organization. If you think the change you’re considering is relatively easy to abandon or undo, you’re in luck — try it out and see what you learn.

However, if that’s not the case and you think the costs make the door one-way, ask yourself if there’s a way to turn that one-way door decision into a two-way door decision. In one oft-cited example, when Sir Richard Branson was launching Virgin Atlantic, he negotiated a clause in his contract with Boeing that would allow him to return the plane he bought if the airline didn’t take off. He ultimately didn’t have to exercise that clause, but in negotiating it, he helped turned a one-way door decision into a two-way door one.

Is there a way to achieve a similar set of career objectives within the context of your current firm or job? Could you take a sabbatical or transition to part time to try something out or collect more data? Can you build or strengthen your ties and professional network to increase your options if your intended course of action turns out not to be all that you were hoping?

Recognize that the one-way/two-way door distinction is a decision heuristic — identifying something as one- or two-way is itself a judgment call that depends on your own level of risk tolerance and the costs you’re willing to bear. What’s too costly to roll back for one person might be within reason for another.

Also keep in mind that you don’t need a costless “undo” button to turn a one-way door decision into a two-way door decision. Remember, a one-way door decision is really just one where you think the costs of failure are too large to bear. Reducing your exposure for a decision you can’t undo is another way of ultimately making it a two-way decision. So, if you can’t walk away from your one-way door decision, see if there are ways to make a bad decision less costly. If you can get the cost low enough that you’re willing to incur it if things go wrong and you walk away, you’ve in effect made it a two-way door decision.

Communicate

Many of these ideas require an open and honest dialogue with your current employer — which may be scary and itself comes with some risk. Remember, if your current employer truly values you, it’s in their best interest to help you resolve your uncertainty and work with you to negotiate a good resolution, as the alternative is a resignation letter that leaves little room for a mutually beneficial solution. One lesson I’ve learned after watching 20 years of MBAs go through the recruitment process is that we often underestimate our power and ability to outline our own needs, negotiate, and find a workable middle ground. There is no guarantee, but learning how seriously your employer takes your well-being is itself good data to have and very relevant to this whole process.

* * *

The past two years have had a profound impact on everyone and have sparked some significant realizations and reprioritizations for many. These are important, valid, and should not be discarded — there’s no question that the Great Resignation is a very real phenomenon. However, we’re also all human, operating under the influence of a lot of factors that affect our ability to make decisions. Recognizing and consciously addressing these biases when making critical life decisions are important steps toward making sure we don’t find ourselves locked outside on the wrong side of a one-way door.

Author’s note: I would like to thank my wife, Melissa, who was instrumental in both recognizing and thinking through this critical challenge, all while we walked through the forest.

* Real names have been changed.

 

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