Is Job Security Really All About “Who You Know?”

A little exercise in critical thinking.

Recently, I received an email from LinkedIn with the familiar heading regarding job security, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Let’s suppose you have no history with this kind of statement. How would you assess its truthfulness? For that matter, how do you test the truthfulness of any claim, whether email, text, tv or conversation?

The either/or format of the LinkedIn claim is a common persuasive technique, often called the black or white fallacy because readers are asked to decide between two positions. Many business people recognize decision biases like anchoring, over-confidence and vivid anecdote, but few yet recognize the common fallacies of decision-making such as the false dichotomy, name-calling and card-stacking.  From the get-go, the ability to recognize a dichotomy like the LinkedIn claim is a kind of “sensitivity training” and a cue that the solution being offered is probably wrong.

Vantage point

LinkedIn has over 500 million users and, I assume, is the largest and most prominent professional network, suggesting that their pronouncements come with a lot of clout. So, it’s important to ask whether their claim, like those of other major institutions, is actually true.  Critical thinkers assume that when you construct an entire argument on one cause, you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates that notion. It’s inevitable, therefore, that LinkedIn minimizes job performance, skips over issues of economic or organizational stability, ignores the job destructive digital technology—and avoids mentioning any other potential issues.

In evaluating an argument, the big question is about its premises, the “why” of the argument. Part of the job of analyzing an argument is determining just how acceptable a premise really is. LinkedIn’s premise is “acceptable” because you can reasonably believe it is true. Furthermore, there’s a lot of magic and belief around the notion of networking. But neither tests whether the claim is actually truthful. So, the only way to actually assess the acceptability and consistency of argument is to find out whether the organizational expertise is credible.

Who are the experts?

The rapid, phenomenal expansion of information on the internet has created a credibility crisis. Almost anyone can make claims on the internet with just a few clicks.  Although some poo-poo the notion of experts, none of us ignore expertise when the issue is really important like who’s going to do my knee surgery or who’ll represent me if I’m being sued.

And so, the big issue of credibility is expertise. Who’s sponsoring the site? What are the author’s qualifications? Some research, most of us know, is valid and some’s junky. In addition, LinkedIn is not an independent party—a fact that should call whatever research they provide into question.  The research methods, other than in the most cursory terms, is unavailable. Nor does LinkedIn provide more than a cursory bit of information regarding the level of accuracy. In contrast to their failures, there’s a terrific load of persuasion research dating from as far back as the 1930s indicating that organizations inevitably bias facts to support their strategy. That’s a caution that ought always to be on your front lobes.

Back in 2011, I referred to one expert on job security, Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer. He found that security is primarily about your ability to manage those in power. That includes playing up to him or her, brown nosing, influencing and emphasizing your strengths and successes. That’s a lot more than just “who you know.” But I’ve learned that plenty of workers don’t like the ethics of that model. Still, that just may be closer to reality.

Causal complications

As I wrote earlier, when an entire argument is constructed on one cause—like networking—you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. That means that the critical thinker needs not only analytical processes, but also an effective, sizable knowledge base. I responded to this issue because of my consulting background and the insights I’d gained over thirty years of working with different firms and hundreds of executives. I understand that thinking is powerful only when it can access a large and accurate base of knowledge. In this instance I have an extensive knowledge base, but if I didn’t I’d search for experts to provide the knowledge.

Finding experts in a given domain takes time. It requires you to consider whether there are experts in a given field and which kind of expert you should choose. The tough part of searching for experts is deciding whether a particular expert is really worth listening to. The trickiest situations are where the domain admits significant differences of opinion. In medicine, for example, there is plenty of genuine expertise. But the incomplete state of nutritional science, for example, means that we have to take some advice with a grain of salt.  Furthermore, though you’d think all physicians would be knowledgeable about nutrition, a large number of them have no more than a day or two of education in the field. This frustrating insight came to me from a family member with a top MD/PhD who formerly taught at Harvard Med School. In sum, finding expertise for critical thinking can often be a tough task. But giving up on that task can be dangerous to both your personal life and your vocation.

Ignoring complexity

So how does LinkedIn get away with ignoring and avoiding the complexities of job security? The answer is straightforward: we live in a time when complications are considered weaknesses. LinkedIn has a lot to gain by selling their claim. They also recognize the high probability that a more complex and nuanced orientation to job security won’t get rejected, but it also won’t get much attention. The PR people know that most people don’t want to be bothered by complications. It’s the simple, one-sided idea that gets the attention. It brushes aside the other factors as distractions.

LinkedIn also ignores the fact that in some contexts you barely need a network. Boston, where some suggest Amazon should look for a new headquarters location, has profound limitations in tech availability. You don’t much need a network to find Boston tech jobs. Just walk in the door and you’ll get hired—that is, if you’ve got the expertise they need. Like Boston, the Minneapolis community is currently looking for several thousand project managers. Again, not much network needed—just expertise. Of course, none of the jobs will come with a promise of job security. Or as one of my clients, a major CIO, once opined about security, “that promise isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

This style of the single truth, simple cause, and simple skill promises things that are too important to surrender without a second thought. It flattens out work-life so that an inherent complexity is merely a distraction. It begins with the essential point that networking is an idea, and ends up making networking the complete rationale for job security.

Pulling it all together, I conclude that security is a much more complicated issue than LinkedIn’s solution. In some businesses, it may not exist.

Critical thinking—even in the simplest form—offers a great deal of promise. In this instance, you can recognize that the claim of job security based on a single cause is nonsense. You’ll noticed I’ve made no promises about resolving the issue of job security, but I sure as hell am not going to accept LinkedIn’s claim. And it’s critical thinking skills that brought me to that conclusion.

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