by Meridith Levinson

How to Make Better Career Decisions and Avoid Setbacks

May 11, 2010

Nathan Bennett, a management professor at Georgia Tech and co-author of Your Career Game, explains how game theory can help people make better career decisions, give them an edge in today's competitive job market, and how it can help them rebound from--if not avoid--career setbacks such as layoffs.

When Nathan Bennett and Stephen Miles started working on their book, Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals (Stanford University Press 2010), they noticed that the vast majority of career management books offer the same advice: Get to know yourself, what you like and dislike, what you’re good at, and find a job that combines those things.

Bennett and Miles also noticed that the career advice that authors and experts dispense today hasn’t changed much in 50 years. They found an article published in 1959, for instance, that advised professionals to consider their interests, abilities and personality when matching themselves to jobs. Sound familiar?

Bennett says Your Career Game takes a different approach to career management. Instead of focusing on strengths and weaknesses, Your Career Game aims to help people better plan their careers and make better career decisions using the principles of game theory.

Game theory, explains Bennett, a professor of management at Georgia Tech, is a way to model decision-making when there are interdependant, competing individuals involved in a given decision. It attempts to mathematically represent rational behavior and rational decisions when different people are interacting, he says.

Game theory is popular in politics and has been used to understand terrorism and evolution. Bennett and Miles believe game theory lends itself to career management, even though people involved in career decisions don’t always act rationally, because careers can easily be thought of as games—strategic games that have rules and involve multiple players, often with competing interests.

Moreover, in many people’s careers, they want to win something—whether a promotion or a position as the CIO of a Fortune 500 company. And as in a strategic game of chess, an individual has to make a series of moves in order to achieve that goal and win his or her career game.

“We see game theory as an opportunity to really reconfigure the way people approach their career decisions,” says Bennett. “We think it provides them with a framework that allows them to be more strategic.”

Game theory offers its practitioners a series of questions they can ask themselves to model a decision or outcome, whether it relates to someone’s career or an election. Because game theory emphasizes thought and logic, it seems suited to the mathematical, analytical minds of IT professionals.

In this Q&A, Bennett explains how game theory can be applied to career management, how it can give job seekers an edge in today’s competitive job market, and how it can help professionals rebound from—if not avoid—career setbacks such as layoffs.

CIO: What is it about game theory that lends itself to career planning and career management?

Nathan Bennett: Game theory tries to make very salient, as you consider a career move, who are the other players; how are they going to react to your move; and what sorts of things can you do in advance to get you to win, so they support you rather than block you. You can use the questions game theory asks of a situation to diagnose your career situation and, as a result, make smart moves.

What are some of those questions?

There are dozens of questions. Here are a couple of examples. The first question to ask yourself is: Who are the other players who can impact my game? What options are open to each player? What goals are being pursued by each player?

Let’s say that I work for you, and I’m interested in a promotion that’s available at our company. I’m a player in the game. You’re a player in the game. My goal is to experience upward mobility. What could your goals be? Your goal could be to develop a reputation in the company for developing the next generation of leaders. Your goal could be to pass on to some other sucker manager your biggest problem. Your goal could be to keep me from getting a promotion so that you don’t have to replace me. You could encourage me, discourage me or sabotage me.

How do I know what you’re going to do? It’s by understanding what your goals are. If I’m thinking about applying for this position and asking you for a recommendation, won’t I think about your goals to make a better decision? If I know your goal is to never have the boat rocked, to not have to replace me, I’d be much more reluctant to ask you for a recommendation.

Does game theory lend itself to long-term or short-term career planning?

You can use it in both cases. I can give you an example with my son. He realized during his sophomore year of college that he really wanted to be a chef. We talked about where he wants to be when he’s 45. That’s roughly 25 years out. He has a vision of being a chef at a particular restaurant. I asked him, If you want to be there at 45, where do you have to be at 40? At 35? At 30?

In each case, he did the work. He looked at the careers of chefs he considers role models and figured out the path that would get him to where he wants to be at 45. Then we talked about some of the decisions he’s making now: How instrumental is an undergraduate college degree to being where you want to be at 45? Not that instrumental. How instrumental is culinary degree? That’s tricky. Some chefs have it; some chefs don’t.

By asking these questions, he got a sense of what his career path needs to look like and the moves he needs to make now in the context of his larger career game.

Not everyone’s career proceeds on a smooth trajectory. Careers can take unexpected twists and turns. How does game theory take into account career setbacks, or does it?

I’d argue that the better you plan, the fewer setbacks you ought to encounter. I don’t think you’re worse off because you had a plan. In fact, I think the work you’ve done to develop the plan ought to make you more aware of all of your options. If someone’s career is a cork floating down a river, and all of a sudden their path gets blocked, they don’t know what to do. But if someone has planned, when an option gets blocked, they have the ability to quickly switch gears and consider their other options.

People who apply game theory to their careers make better decisions in the first place and are better equipped to deal with disruptions along the way.

Can applying game theory to career management help a person avoid getting caught in a layoff?

The game theory approach is about helping you understand your competitive advantage as an employee—what do you have, and what do you offer that others don’t? That is a much more useful thing to know if you want to try to avoid downsizing [than what you like and where you fit]. You can find ways to tell the story about what it is you offer the company that others don’t. Just as that helps you interview for a job, it ought to help you hang onto a job. And, if you do the analysis and you find you have no competitive advantage and your labor is a commodity, then that ought to suggest that it’s time to make some investments in yourself.

How does applying game theory give job seekers an edge in today’s job market?

Just as you can use this game theory approach to shape the way you think about your career, you can also use it to understand what other people are looking for. When a company is looking to make a hire, they’re looking for someone who can help them win in the marketplace. Game theory can help you convince that hiring company that you understand better than all the other folks competing for the job how to help them win.

Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.