Exactly twenty-five years ago this year, a tiny British rom-com starring a relatively unknown actress, Qwyneth Paltrow, became a massive hit.
The film – ‘Sliding Doors’ – presented two parallel storylines of titular character ‘Helen’. In one she only just catches her morning train (triggering one version of reality), while in the other she just misses it (triggering another, very different set of outcomes).
The concept of something as simple as a set of train doors sliding shut, creating a whole new chain of events, has since become something of a metaphor for the existence of happenstance in life. The film’s title has even entered popular language. When people talk about life-changing events (such as meeting their life partner) from what seems to be serendipity, it’s often referred to as their ‘sliding doors moment’ – when this particular chance event changed the direction their life took.
Of course common sense tells us that there thousands of mini events that happen to most people every single day. Deciding one specific one as having more importance than another is probably flawed.
This being said, it can’t be doubted that some events really do change things massively for people. Take, for example, the many office workers who phoned in sick on 9/11, and didn’t travel to the Twin Towers that day. These people likely owe their lives to them feeling ill that day.
Are careers impacted by chance?
The above example is one work-related chance event that has ultimately impacted the rest of these people’s lives. The fact these people are still alive today will of course mean they now a career that might otherwise not have happened.
Although it’s an extreme example, chance is not totally absent in career making. Take super-model Kate Moss’s rise to fame (she was ‘spotted’ by the boss of Storm Management, an airport, aged 14 after a holiday in the Bahamas).
As such, both examples raise an interesting philosophical question, around just how common ‘chance events’ really are in dictating people’s entire careers.
Is chance really more impactful than the things we like to think control it – like academic achievement, or on-the-job learning and development? Is chance really more impactful in directing people’s careers than things like their skills, competencies, attitude to growth etc?
In which case, are the things HR does to try and influence it for staff, really not doing much at all?
Trying to work out the science of ‘chance’
It was this strangely compelling question that fascinated Christine Naschberger, a professor in human resource management, and who is in charge of Audencia Business School’s own executive HR programme.
Speaking exclusively to TLNT she says: “For years I’ve been teaching HR practitioners that what matters in people’s careers is 30% down to their performance and competencies; 30% their own personal network; 30% on their own self-brand; which leaves around 10% down to what is commonly referred to as luck.”
But, she says, she wanted to investigate this further, to really understand whether this 10% really was accurate.
“My colleagues and I thought that the impact ‘chance events’ on people’s careers was an under-studied area,” she says. “I felt in needed more investigation.”
‘Chance events’ theory challenges HR orthodoxy
It was an investigation that she confesses had the potential to fundamentally challenge HR’s notion that it’s through them, and their interventions that people meet their full potential at work:
“Research like this definitely has the ability to ask questions about the concept of linear career growth – that is careers which are rational and structured, and things that organizations and HR department influence,” she says.
Undeterred though, she decided to go ahead, questioning the perceived career trajectories of 682 Audencia alumni.
Careers really are dictated by chance events
What she found – the full results of which were only recently published in journal European Management Review – appear quite staggering.
According to Naschberger, a staggering 62% of the people responding to a detailed questionnaire surmised that they owed their career to a significant chance event.
Examples that respondents cited included chance encounters, being laid off or, more poignantly, the birth of a child who was disabled, and which forced them to completely re-evaluate their life and their career expectations.
“This single finding a lone was a big surprise,” says Naschberger. “Virtually two-thirds of people claim they have had a chance event that has significantly impacted their careers. Even when we take into account that someone might retrospectively have post-rationalised a single event as being important, the fact remains that a surprisingly high percentage of people claim their career has been governed by a chance event.”
Implications for HR
The implications for HR could be profound. “Companies – and HR professionals – have tended to have a rational approach to career progression, and being able to influence employees’ outcomes themselves through training, or L&D or mentoring.”
She adds: “On the evidence of this research though, there is the suggestion HR cannot control people’s chance events, and by implication, their careers.”
So does this really mean employees are literally in the lap of luck when it comes to what happens in their careers?
And are attempts by HR to steer people’s careers ultimately ignoring the greater role happenstance plays?
Or, is it only by HR providing opportunities to staff in the first place that the likelihood of a ‘chance event’ happening actually improves?
In other words, can HR help make a chance event more likely?
Chance favors those with a growth mindset
A second striking finding may go some way to answering the last question.
This was the fact that 80% of the time, chance events were regarded by people as having a positive career impact – suggesting that when circumstances come together, such as networking with a particular new person at work, or taking training – the outcomes are generally positive.
This says Naschberger, feeds into positive ‘growth mindset’ theory – and here at least, HR professionals have a big part to play in inculcating a sense in people that change can lead to growth opportunities.
She says: “Employees often have either fixed mindsets or growth mindsets. The former is more pessimistic, where people believe that their personalities are fixed, and that they cannot change. The latter relishes change, and our data reveals quite strongly that those who see chance events as having a positive impact on their careers were those who also had growth mindsets.”
She added: “Those who described chance events as having a negative impact on their careers were more likely to have a fixed mindset outlook on life.”
The role for HR when chance seems so dominant
Although the sample of people tested were university alumni – people who are well educated, and have good professional networks, and so are potentially more tuned in to being able to cultivate events for their professional gain – Naschberger suggests HR still has a role to play in guiding careers seemingly more likely to happen by chance.
She says: “I think what this data is telling us is that managers and HR professionals must be able to ‘see’ the chance event, and encourage people to grasp it, and create the notion that this could take them in a new direction internally within the company, or ultimately, externally.”
She adds: “It’s around cultivating the idea that while might well have some sort of general career plan; it’s also good that they’re flexible, and see where unexpected opportunities may take them.”
HR even has a role is helping people deal with negative chance events.
“When people classed a chance event as having a negative impact on them, it was normally through things like a company restructure changing their job, or a lay-off situation where they were let go,” says Naschberger.
“In both cases HR can have a beneficial impact in helping people deal with these two chance events. There was still a significant cohort of people who said they had a negative career event, but it ended up being positive in the end – because, for example, being laid off meant they got a new, better job. HR can help people see the opportunity ahead that a layoff might create.”
Given the world of work is often regarded as being increasingly unpredictable, it stands to reason that it is much more likely that people will claim to experience career-impacting ‘chance events’.
So there is also a reason for HR to understand how these events impact people, to help them emerge from them as best they can.
But, there is also a suggestion chance can be given a helping hand.
“If the research reveals anything, it’s that most so-called ‘chance events’ are actually related to the people we know – so maybe employees have more of an ability than they think to impact their chance events, and leave life less down to ‘luck,’ says Naschberger.
HR can certainly play a massive role in widening the networks of their staff, and putting them in front of new people, by giving them new projects and new opportunities.
“HR’s role is to help people be alive to opportunity,” she says. “We all know women in particular tend to discount themselves from jobs if they don’t think they have all 100% the skill required, while men will apply for it, with even fewer skills. This is where HR as a mentor can really pay dividends for people.”
So, maybe in time, ‘chance events’ could start to be seen as less based on coincidence and more on what HR has been able to do (sometimes many years earlier), to help staff develop a wider network, or have a wider set of skills.
Top career ‘chance’ events
- In 1995, Sergey Brin, then a second-year grad student in computer science at Sanford University, volunteered to be a tour guide for prospective students who had just been admitted. By pure chance, Larry Page, an engineering major from the University of Michigan, ended up in his group. After initially clashing during the tour, Brin needed someone to help him on his dissertation entitled “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.” The two later formed Google.
- Bill Fernandez was a mutual a mutual friend of Steve Jobs – who he’d known since they attended Cupertino Junior High School – and Steve Wozniak, who lived on Fernandez’s block. He thought they’d naturally hit it off, and it was he who introduced the later Apple founders to each other.
- Paul McCartney attended the annual Woolton Parish Church Garden Fete hoping to find a girl. Instead, saw a high school band called The Quarrymen, fronted by John Lennon. After McCartney showed off his guitar skills, he was invited to join the band that would eventually be called The Beatles.