A while back I worked with a candidate that was facing a difficult career choice.

She was trying to decide whether or not to accept a job offer from a well-known organization. The role itself was a position of leadership, compelling, and overall very promising for the right person. Yet I could sense and hear in her voice she did not want to take the job. Other than the excellent compensation, it was ultimately not in alignment with her career goals and path. She knew this was not the right choice and I supported her conclusion.

Two days later, she informed me that she ultimately changed her mind and took the job, justifying her decision by mentioning her expanded role, career growth potential, etc. I truly hope everything has worked out as expected for her. Although it is not my place to judge, I will. If things ultimately don't work out, I have to wonder about the potential negative impact her decision had on her career and her happiness.

I have seen numerous professionals face difficult career decisions and experience stress trying to reconcile the desires in their heart/gut with the practical realities of their circumstances. This intersection typically results in folks staying with an organization they really want to leave, or accepting a job offer they know in their hearts they should turn down. But why does this happen?

Perhaps one reason is the phenomenon of anxiety and discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. Without getting into psycho-babble, suffice it to say most people will feel psychological anxiety or discomfort if they hold two beliefs that are not in alignment or are contradictory with each other. Anyone that has had a craving for chocolate but is watching calories can understand this discord.

Unlike the US Congress, most people do not have the stamina to sustain such mental conflict. We consciously and subconsciously seek to alleviate dissonance to feel better and eliminate our anxiety. To do this, we will typically follow one of two paths:

1. Follow your gut and do the right thing. This entails taking a path of action/decision-making to accept and reinforce one belief and dispel the other (e.g., accept that eating chocolate is bad for you and find something else to snack on).

2. Choose the path you know is wrong or that doesn't feel completely right, and justify your actions through mental gymnastics and other rationalizations. People will choose to accept both conflicting beliefs and rationalize their decision to resolve the mental conflict (e.g., eat some chocolate and tell yourself you will make up for it by working out an extra half hour at the gym).

It doesn't take a psychologist to understand Option 1 is the healthy choice and Option 2 may likely lead to an undesired outcome. Understanding the world is not perfect and we don't always get what we want, we can optimize our circumstances and put ourselves in positions to make informed decisions and make the right choice.

The next time you are experiencing a tough decision or anxiety about what to do in your career (or your personal life), take a breath and pause to recognize the conflict within you, ask if you are potentially rationalizing poor behavior or decision-making, and be honest with and trust yourself enough to follow your heart. More often than not, deep down inside, you already know what is best for you.

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