Is cognitive bias crippling your next career pivot?

If so, it may be a case of functional fixedness.

Photo: Marten Newhall on Unsplash

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

- Henry David Thoreau

It’s common to make career pivots into new careers and industries, but just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s easy. Having a strong network and knowing your transferable skills are essential in making a successful career pivot. However, despite having well-developed networks, I’ve heard countless clients say: 1) How difficult it is to identify their transferable skills; and 2) It would be easier to write someone else’s resume than their own.

Why is it so hard for us to write down what we do everyday? Why is it so hard to see or explain how our skills can be leveraged in other roles, organizations, or industries? How may times have we attended workshops or Googled how to identify our transferable skills only to feel as lost and as frustrated as when we first started the task?

Part of the answer has to do with a cognitive bias known as “functional fixedness.” Functional fixedness is the tendency to fixate on the common use of an object. For example, if you were in search of a hammer to hang a picture up in your house and couldn’t find one, what would you do? Depending on how badly you wanted to hang the picture, you might find some other tool to do the job, such as a wrench, shoe, or the handle of a butter knife. Personal disclosure, I’ve used the latter to hammer in nails, poster pins, loosen and tighten screws and straighten a bent prong on a plug. When we change the function of an object, we can solve our problem and move ahead. 

When we overuse this bias (e.g., “I can only do this job with a hammer”), it prevents us from coming up with new ways to solve problems. Functional fixedness can occur in your career when you don’t see how your skills can be used in ways that differ from the typical tasks and functions of your current role. Consequently, you assume your skills can only be applied to a specific role.

Just as career pivots are common, so too is functional fixedness. Here are some strategies to overcome it.  

Look beyond job titles

While job titles can be useful for conveying information, they can also be limiting. Titles can promote a myopic and uninformed view of career. It’s common for us to make assumptions about roles based solely on the title of the job. But titles and careers change far too quickly and can demonstrate variety and similarity both within and between industries. Titles can also prematurely narrow down or stunt your decision-making process by making you think you have less available options than you actually have.  Instead of leading with titles, think about what problems you could solve with the skills and experience you have? Who could benefit from you solving those types of problems?

Consider skills from a variety of roles

I often see job seekers discount volunteer experiences simply because they were not “paid” for their time. It’s worth noting that volunteer work largely happens in the not-for-profit sector. Depending on the organization, it may have limited funds, high turnover, and a patchwork of resources to rely upon. Therefore, sometimes it can take more skill and effort to accomplish something in this type of environment versus an organization that is well resourced and well funded. Don’t discount or dismiss earned skills regardless of where you earned them. Volunteer, sports, community involvement, and side hustles are all roles where you can leverage skills earned. And if you’ve put the most related experience for a desired role at the bottom of your resume and labelled it “volunteer,” it’s like saying “nothing of value to see here.”

To some, this may go without saying, but it’s worth noting that while an employer owns the job, you own the experience and skills. That’s why they are called transferable; you can transfer them to other environments. It doesn’t even matter if you identify a skill that is absent from your current job description. Many people come away from jobs with skills and experience different from what the job called for in the first place. If you’ve demonstrated a skill in one environment, it is highly likely that you can demonstrate it in other environments too.

Complete a strengths finder 360

It is rare for someone to have zero skills. So when I hear someone say, “I have no skills,” what a person really means is: “I don’t know how to identify my skills,” “I don’t know how to explain my skills to others,” or “I don’t value the skills I have.” Identifying your skills can be further complicated if you are unsatisfied with your current role or not proud of the work you do. However, you can’t let feelings of being stuck prevent you from becoming unstuck. Remember, feeling stuck can be a temporary feeling if you are willing to do something about it.

How do you identify your skills? Do a strengths finder 360 by asking those around you (co-workers, friends, and family) what your top five skills or strengths are. Don’t rely on job descriptions (past, current, or future) to be the only determinant of your skill set. And don’t overlook power skills (i.e., previously undervalued by the title “soft skills” – See how titles can be very misleading and prone to change?). Human skills such as problem solving, conflict resolution, negotiation, and building relationships often form the foundation for roles in leadership and customer service. Many people falsely conclude that non-technical skills are not as valuable as “hard” or “technical skills.” In reality, human skills are career building skills and are often more critical than we recognize. The explosion of coaching over the last decade is a testament to this since most coaching rarely focuses on technical skills. Don’t assume technical skills are the only ones that define you, nor do your skills only apply to the roles you’ve held.

The best part of this strategy is that no fancy assessment or money is required. So don’t use the excuse that you have no money for professional development! This is a great way to broaden your view of how others see you and contrast it with how you see yourself.

Talk to people who have made a career pivot 

There’s nothing worse than ruminating on where you are at the expense of gaining traction and insight. Don’t assume insight or motivation will suddenly strike, or that if it hasn’t yet, you just need to wait longer. Motivation and insight are commonly found on the other side of action. Reach out to others who have made a career pivot to understand how they made their transition and what they learned. What tips or advice would they give? How did they leverage their skills and experience to pivot? Can they recommend anyone else you should talk to?

And don’t forget to do an information interview; i.e., talk to people in the career and industries you want to pivot into. What skills does one need? How can your skills and experience be applied to the roles in that industry? Often, people in the industry will have the insight and perspective that can challenge your functional fixedness.  

Think about a skill as a process

People overlook their skills all the time because they don’t reflect on what’s involved in their execution or the impact of the outcome. The more automatic a skill becomes, the easier it is to dismiss. If you describe a skill as a process, you will see that it is more complex and robust than you previously thought. Take meeting management, which is for many, the black hole of work life. For effective meeting management to occur, we need to: understand the purpose of the meeting, invite the necessary participants, schedule and coordinate times and people, set the agenda, keep the meeting on track, gather input, create action items, assign responsibility, follow up, manage personalities, and end on time with everyone leaving and feeling it was an effective use of time.  Phew! That’s quite the skill when you reflect on it! Now when you consider the impact of a meeting as discovering ideas or saving the company money by averting a bad decision, that skill is very valuable.

Of course being aware that functional fixedness exists can also help, so I’ll be curious to hear if you start to recognize it now that you have a name for it. Do you have an example of your own functional fixedness and how you overcame it? Leave a comment below for the Career with a View crew.