How a poverty mindset could be harming your career

When people grow up in an environment that’s filled with scarcity, their narratives are markedly different to those of people who grow up with abundance.

Many years ago, there was an experiment more affectionately known as the marshmallow test. In it, children were offered one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if they were willing to wait a few minutes. Monitored over decades to come, the study then looked at how the child’s response influenced their overall success in life. But only recently have psychologists finally started to look at this experiment in a broader environmental context, examining why for those who came from impoverished backgrounds, the decision to take the marshmallow in front of them was actually a strategic move from their point of view.

This is because a person who grows up surrounded by scarcity is conditioned to think that they will rarely get opportunities for good things and that when offered, they need to dive head first like a desperate single girl leaping for the bride’s bouquet at a wedding. For them, the belief is that there really is no promise of tomorrow and so research has shown that they live in a much more present focused reality. This can be a double edged sword. In some ways, being hyper-aware of the present means that when it comes to utilising the resources they have, they’re far savvier and more effective. However, when faced with new opportunities, they’re less likely to wait for something greater, grasping at what’s on offer instead. This is largely due to where they perceive certainty to exist and this itself is largely based on one’s past experiences. A person who rarely experiences abundance will be anchored to a belief that abundance is rare and so will act accordingly. In contrast, a person who grows up in abundance will display what appears to be greater patience as they anticipate that if they pass on an opportunity, another will soon come along.

So how does this relate to our working lives?

The jobs we take

If someone believes that a good job is hard to come by, they’re more likely to do whatever they can to convince a prospective employer that they’re the perfect fit instead of trying to find a job that they would genuinely thrive in. This can be a costly exercise for both parties as time progresses and the masks start to crack. Absolutely, the new employee may still work incredibly hard to keep the job, especially as they’re less likely to anticipate another good job appearing but the effort required to keep up may wear them down over time, resulting in less optimal results for the employer.

Whether we ask for a raise

When it comes to a raise, someone with nothing to lose will likely ask for a raise sooner rather than later. If they’re good at their job, these promotions can lead them out of a cycle that helps them reprogram their belief about opportunity. However, if they’re too eager and impatient, it can discourage them to the point where they’ll stop trying, adopting a defeatist attitude instead. In contrast, someone who believes that persisting with work will lead to just rewards is less likely to ask for a raise. This too can prove disadvantageous as it can lead to their being overlooked or perceived less capable so that they only receive the raise well after they deserved it.

Whether we go out on a limb to try and improve things

Google did an incredible piece of research which revealed that the greatest indicator of a healthy culture was one that created psychological safety. Unfortunately, if carrying on from above, you believe that a job is something that’s hard to come by, you’re also likely to be incredibly risk averse in your behaviours for fear that it could jeopardise what you already have. You’ll be less inclined to make suggestions that could lead others to perceive you as foolish, less inclined to experiment or risk failing and less inclined to change processes. Unless the company culture is one that is intent on creating psychological safety and showing this through countless examples, this creates an environment that encourages you to become another yes man in a world of group think.

Ultimately, at least for now, little research has been done on how this plays out in a work environment and the above are simply observations anticipating a correlation with the research findings. While there is finally some research emerging on the ability of one’s temporary environment to influence how you respond (taking into account your baseline behaviours), it is this author’s hope that future research will bolster these observations, highlighting the importance of understanding both your own predispositions and how critical a healthy work environment can be to altering your reality and ability to thrive in a company.


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