Getting Unstuck: How Cognitive Biases Are Holding You Back

Self-awareness is a fairly common trait among strong leaders and top performers. It’s not a stretch to say that much of your success can be attributed to knowing what you’re good at, and what you’re not.

But no matter your level of self-awareness, we’re all privy to cognitive biases. “A cognitive bias is a type of error in thinking that occurs when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them,” says Kendra Cherry, author of The Everything Psychology Book.

It’s part of what makes us human. There’s no way around it. Our brains are designed to work fast. But to do so, they take shortcuts.

The biases you experience can impact how you feel about yourself, the choices you make, and even the ones you don’t. They affect the decisions you make in your relationships, with your finances, and even your careers — with or without your knowledge.

By uncovering and understanding these underlying influences and how they might be swaying your decision making, you can guard against them and help you over the hurdles that may be keeping you running in place.

Gretchen Rubin says that “You manage what you monitor, so find a way to monitor whatever matters”.

We want to talk about 3 cognitive biases that might be holding you back from taking action in your career, how they could be affecting you, and why it matters.

Status Quo Bias

Status quo bias is the tendency to prefer things as they are as opposed to changing them.

This can be something trivial like that stroke of irritation when Facebook or Google changes its user interface. “Would you like to use the new version of the calendar or continue using the older version?”

Or it may be something more significant like switching a long-term vendor relationship or changing teams at work.

Instinctively, we want to keep things the way they are.

Part of the perniciousness of this bias is the unwarranted assumption that another choice will be inferior or make things worse. The status-quo bias can be summed with the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — an adage that fuels our conservative tendencies,” says George Dvorsky, a Canadian social scientist.

The idea that keeping things as they are is somehow safer or better than making a change can be prohibitive. Complacency can be detrimental to your long-term goal of happiness and fulfillment in a career.

You should monitor it closely.

Loss Aversion

However,  making changes isn’t always as harmless as choosing a new user interface. Sometimes there is more at stake.  Further, trying something new isn’t always beneficial.

Enter: Loss Aversion.

It is the cognitive bias that explains the tendency to prefer avoiding a loss to receiving a gain.

According to research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, psychologically, losses are twice as powerful as gains. Put simply, losing $50 is just as painful as winning $100 is gratifying.

In fact, the rule of thumb is that the upside needs to be twice that of the downside for us to even consider the risk.

That’s fair though, right? There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe or conservatively. Heck, you’re told to decrease the risk tolerance in your investment portfolios as you get older, right?

But when it comes to making changes aimed at affecting your personal happiness and fulfillment, it’s harder to quantify. How do you quantify the opportunity cost of inaction?

Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk made the observation that the fear of losing trumps the excitement of victory for many people. When put that way, it’s much easier to discern that you shouldn’t be guided by fear.

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is “a concept marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.

We’ve all felt it before. But where does that feeling come from?

One study suggested that having “non-supportive” friends could make you more likely to feel like an imposter.

At some point, we’re all likely to be affected by some version of it. But here you are. Still alive and kicking. Still striving to become the best version of yourself.

Even as you grow and develop in your life and career, at every stage, you’re faced with new challenges that you might at some point feel incapable of handling.

And I hate to break it to you, but as you climb higher, you’ll be faced with more chances to feel like an imposter. When that spirit of doubt starts to creep into your psyche, it can be hard to break away.

It’s not going to be a motivational quote or a Rocky montage video that helps you get past that feeling, only confronting that fear, and taking charge can alleviate it. Then one day, you’ll look back and say, “I did that.”

Remembering that you did, and how far you’ve come can be a reminder that you can do it again.

Former President and CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer once said, “I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.”

We suspect there might be another way, too.

Consider joining a supportive community of like-minded individuals working toward a common goal of self-understanding, empowerment, and fulfillment in their careers.

You might thank yourself for it later.

About the Author

Brent G. Trotter is a Writer and Strategist at People and Words. He creates content and strategies to help companies reach the right people, resonate better, and grow their businesses. He writes about marketing, entrepreneurship, and the psychology of human behavior.