Unpacking the drivers of why so many public sector professionals make unwise career decisions

By Sue Parker

Thursday March 4, 2021

business woman looking pensive about her career decisions
A sign your new role may be an unwise choice are instincts to justify, reassure and rationalise that decision. (Image: Adobe/motortion)

There are no guarantees in careers and job choices. Minimising unwise choices and maximising wise ones requires taking stock of your true motivations, writes Sue Parker.

Career and job decisions have an incalculable impact professionally and personally. Wellbeing and success is at stake, with the consequences of choices being positive or negative. Both public and private sectors are affected equally.

According to research by LinkedIn, 33% of professional Australians will be actively seeking a new role in 2021. It was also found 72% of women and 52% of men experience stress and negative situations during their job search. After all, it is a vulnerable and confronting time with a lot at stake.

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Even the most confident and experienced of professional candidates will face challenges in their quests irrelevant of being at $80k or $800k salary levels.

With the shockwaves of 2020 there were widespread reflections and navel gazing around career purpose, direction, life fulfilment and workplace wellbeing factors.

Hence, there will be extensive internal job search activity and promotional opportunities in 2021 across governments and agencies. And many from the private sector will pursue roles in the public sector just as the reverse to move back into or a sea change to private enterprise. There will be many factors driving all three routes. For those weighing up that pendulum, an article by Upskilled reviews the pros and cons of both sectors well.

But irrelevant of sector or role, I estimate circa 50% of job choices will ultimately meet with regret and in hindsight, deemed unwise. Remorse and unrest generally start to niggle people within the first one-to-six months of starting any new role. Admitting a career gaffe to yourself is hard, but even harder to others.

Justify — rationalise — reassure

The precursor to a new role, promotion or career change that may be unwise are proclamations to justify, reassure and rationalise that decision.

Tuning into those fervent attempts to convince and qualify choices (to self and others) is a strong indicator of misalignment and unease.

There are many moving parts, conflictual and emotional elements when in the job search hot-seat. Making wise choices for the right reasons lays a platform of self-confidence and a career trajectory that supports authentically. But unwise choices will erode on many levels both consciously or unconsciously.

When a choice is a wise one, there is collective sense of harmony and excitement. Harmony is instinctive and there is no need to rationalise, justify and reassure yourself or others of the decision. And the converse as outlined above when a decision leans to an unwise one 

Risky-decision wheel

After 16 years in recruitment and executive job search coaching, I have observed time and time again the three key elements that contribute to making unwise job and career decisions. These stymie critical thinking and keep competent professionals on a treadmill of unhappiness and unrealised potential. They can be individual risk factors or combined as part of a risky-decision wheel.

Here is that wheel:

wrong motivation, sunk cost bias and fear are reasons for poor career decisions

Wrong motivations

There are many motivators when choosing a new role or career pivot. But some can be so bright and shiny that the allure of them blindsides to other pertinent realities.

Money, prestige, fame, security, a great agency or organisation to have on the CV are big alluring and illusionary motivators. Further, desperation can be deafening and can bite the proverbial hard.

Critical thinking is key to minimising deluded decisions that, once the gloss has worn off, may put you behind the eight ball. It’s not the actual motivator that matters in singular form but the alliance with other factors and variables to consider.

We all seek to survive and thrive, with the latter crossing over to making a real difference and impact broadly. But if the motivators are purely monetary or selfish, they may lead to unwise long-term decisions and dissatisfaction. A deeper analysis of your who, what, why will clarify wise decision-making.

Sunk-cost bias fallacy

The impact of sunk-cost bias fallacy is as prevalent as often illogical and erroneous. Essentially, it refers to the hardwired tendency to follow through on activities, a course of action and career in which considerable cost (effort, time and money) has already been invested.

We all have fallen into this rabbit hole in some way, and for career decisions it begets the question if the current costs outweigh future benefits. And those biases can be applied from family and community expectations to deliver also.

After long and laborious hiring processes, the ego to win overrides wise decisions also. Desperation and the desire to conquer often shrouds evidence. Be mindful.

The USA Government Careers site writes:

“There is a good deal of psychology at play when it comes to the sunk-cost fallacy and why we fall for it. Assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Business, Christopher Olivola, believes that there is a very specific reason we feel the need to “stick to the plan” when it comes to decisions.

Olivola cites cognitive dissonance, a phenomena that occurs when we feel remorse after making a decision, as the main reason why we most often fall for the sunk cost fallacy. This cognitive dissonance often leads to defensive behaviour and thoughts in regards to an original decision — but this emotional reaction could cause you to continue down a path that clearly isn’t working for you.“

Men often are beholden to a career path that no longer benefits them and fear change due to investments to date. Of note is a survey I conducted on men’s career satisfaction and some of the elements impacting decisions; whilst not purely for the public sector, there are many takeaways of value to apply…


Fear is more pernicious than realised and manifests in myriad ways. Knowledge is power and without full knowledge, wise job decisions are compromised.

Let’s be very clear: hiring and job search is a two-way street, and particularly for senior leaders and managers. Yet far too many candidates, irrespective of being at the $80k-$800k Band 1 fall into the master-slave hiring pit. Recruitment agencies, panels and hiring managers are equally complicit in the pit. Holding a two-way mindset means it must be understood that today’s candidate can be tomorrow’s hiring manager, and memories are long in the public service and agencies.

I have seen this play out so many times. Strong leaders with stewardship over hundreds become acquiescent and meek in the hiring process. Negotiation skills, empowerment and fearlessness are hidden for fear of reprisals. So, candidates don’t dig enough, ask important questions or challenge for mutual value. And it is of mutual value for all parties to learn as much as possible about each other.

Like an ostrich’s head in the sand, many choose not to ask the hard questions for fear the answers will nullify their interest. This impacts across motivations and the reality of management styles and culture the role pertains to.

And women are particularly fearful of putting themselves out there, as indicated in the 2019 LinkedIn survey, where it was found that women will only apply for roles if they meet 100% of the criteria, compared to men, who confidently apply if they meet 60% of the criteria.

Many professional women pursue roles that do not fully capitalise on their value, as they don’t put their hat into the ring to learn more in robust conversations. Further, perceived ageism bias and fear to address issues keeps both men and women from applying.

Due diligence is a critical part of a wise and risk-prevention decision. Reference checking is a two-way street. Given the attrition of staff due to toxic management, it is essential that as a candidate you dig deep without fear.

The way forward with your career decisions

There are no guarantees in careers and job choices. Minimising unwise choices and maximising wise decisions requires taking stock of your true motivations. Taking respectful control of the process and embracing a marketing-curious mindset will fortify confidence.

And don’t ignore any evidence at the front end, as rarely do situations improve. Don’t fall into the belief that it may be different for you despite contrary feedback.

Be brave, courageous and persistent for what will provide long-term career fulfilment.


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