Talented but Not Liking It? Here’s The Psychology Behind It.

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Criminal Lawyer Subhas Anandan, Eye Doctor Geh Min, Investment Banker Ronald Ong, Chemical and Biomedical Expert – Professor David Lou. 

What do these people have in common? They are successful people in Singapore who excel in traditional job professions. Being in the fields of law, medicine, banking and scientific research respectively, they reflect the reality of our world – one that is dominated by specialisations. In fact, these are job roles that many parents desire for their children to aspire towards. Whether they find fulfilment in the work they do, however, is an entirely separate matter. 

 

Talent & Enjoyment Do Not Always Go Together 

We commonly assume that when one is endorsed for a specific talent, he must be enjoying the work that requires that talent. Being talented makes work more pleasurable, right? 

Well as human beings, it is not as simple as that correlation. Concluding that an individual enjoys his work because of how well he does it, discounts a range of factors like growth opportunities, workplace autonomy, cordial work relationships and ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ at work. The list goes on. What one considers as meaningful work and the extent that each aspect appeals to an individual differs from person to person. Hence, it is essential to understand the extent of psychological job-fit in terms of the nature of work, work environment and work relationships a person has with his current job role. Only then will he take ownership to exercise his talent and skills, even when not pressured by others to do so.

 

A Case of Psychological Job-Misfit

But hold on, companies only care about performance and profit, what is the issue if the talented employee is not enjoying it? The company still gets profits and so does the employee! Or does he want to stay on?

Let us examine the case of a software engineer, Chase, at a social media organization, quoted from the Harvard Business Review. He was assigned a project that involved extensive coding and cross-functional work. Does he have a strong technical background? Yes. Was he an exceptional team player? Yes. In fact, the article even puts that Chase had produced ‘exceptional results.’

So did he enjoy it? To quote the article, he felt very ‘drained.’ And while he was talented and adept in technical aspects, what he really enjoyed was building prototypes that tested fresh, new ways of capturing and sharing media content.

Psychologically, he was experiencing cognitive dissonance – the state of doing something despite inconsistent attitudes or beliefs.

Fortunately for him, his manager understood and allowed him to do what he truly enjoyed. In order to do so, the manager had to create a new role that blended various skill sets. While this was a risk and not an easy feat, it was eventually a win-win for both the company and the employee.

The initial job-misfit revealed a misalignment between his work personality traits and what was expected of him in the job role. In his initial job role, the nature of work was confined to the technical expertise that he was already endorsed for. The cross-functional work also reflected a heavy focus on people management. It was through the long process of work that his inclination for creative technical work was discovered. With the benefit of hindsight from psychological assessments however, this information could have been obtained and follow-up action taken earlier. 

 

People Still Stay In The Game

Yet interestingly, people still persist in work that they do not enjoy at least for some time, with or without insight into their psychological job-fit.

You may have heard people saying: “I’ve already come so far, I just can’t stop now…” Such a statement reflects the sentiments of countless law students or doctors in training for about a decade or even more. Given the sunk costs of time, energy and high tuition fees, these subtle factors often motivate them to stay in the game. 

Once they have entered the workforce, the monetary appeal of a glamourous job often works wonders as a source of extrinsic motivation. For others, collectivistic cultures provide a great source of influence. With the emphasis on contributions to society, for instance, being a doctor could put them in good stead as one who holds a helping profession. Being in a prominent profession also serves to boost the image of their family and community in a culture that focuses on relationships. The list of reasons for staying in the game goes on.

These reasons find their roots in some of the factors that impact observable workplace behaviour. Therefore, it helps us take a step back to appreciate the complexity of thought that goes behind our actions. Next time if you meet someone who has stayed in his job for 20 years, do not be alarmed if he tells you honestly that he does not like his job! 

 

Actual Behaviour As A Function of Five Factors

To dive deeper with diagnostic clarity, it helps to be aware that observable workplace behaviour is a function of five factors: 

  1. Skill Level (Vocational and Soft)
  2. Job Role Perception
  3. Motivational factors
  4. Family & Personal Variables
  5. Psychological traits and behavioural tendencies

For people to remain in a profession for years even though they dislike it, there are other reasons that most of us can easily relate to. They excel in the role, given the skills they have developed and the work experience to complement it – the 1st factor. For example, an architect who has won many awards or a programmer who has coded many successful applications. 

Despite not liking their job, they may interpret that their workplace behaviour well reflects what they believe the organisation expects of them in their job role – the 2nd factor. For example, an accountant who intentionally dedicates less time for interactions with colleagues so that he can allocate more time to finishing and closing accounts for the quarter.

With the pull of these 4 factors, it is not surprising that a person remains in the job role for a period of time even if the elusive 5th factor does not fall in line. A persevering person may be introspective enough to sense that he has low psychological suitability for the job. Yet as with fallible mankind, he could have blind spots that hinder him from identifying the exact psychological traits and behavioural tendencies that make it so. 

 

Job Personality Misfit Should Not be Underestimated

As people choose to battle with their internal conflicts due to the pull of the first 4 factors, they eventually reach a point where they cannot hold out any longer. This is evidenced by cases of ‘burnout,’ used to describe Millennials in the workforce today and major career switches that take place across the globe. We see intense spurts of great performance and talent before the employee ‘implodes’ or decides to drop the bomb of resignation.

From an organisational psychology point of view, there is a misalignment taking place between a person’s intended behaviour and observed behaviour. The cost of misfit between jobs and people in the workforce can be up to 13.5 times an employee’s monthly salary. This cost is apart from the cost of other counter-productive variables which include frustrations & misunderstanding caused to high performing employees, valuable vendors, organizational partners and customers.

A further implication of underestimating job personality fit occurs when a person is underperforming in his or her job role. The undiscerning observer may conveniently conclude that the person is not talented. 

While we do not want to use job personality misfit as an excuse for poor performance, neither do we want to overlook the importance of psychological job-fit and its impact on actual work performance. To reap the benefits of objective insight about your psychological job-fit, why not start today?

 

References:

Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington and Adam Grant, Why People Really Quit Their Jobs, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-people-really-quit-their-jobs

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