Think of Your Job Search as a Game

There are countless definitions of “game theory.” The one thing they all have in common is that they give the reader a headache. So I am going to be bold and propose my own definition: Game theory is a tool to help describe and forecast the result(s) of interactions between people. In other words, you pretend a real situation is just a game which you play to explain what has happened, or to forecast what may happen, by considering possible human interactions. It’s a brain teaser something akin to an Einstein thought experiment.

In university I studied game theory. Our focus, since I was studying International Relations, was primarily on two games: Zero Sum and Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Zero Sum is simple: You win, I lose. There is no in-between. Whatever is to your benefit is to my detriment. For a job search, that would mean I get the job offer (and accept it) and you don’t. Not exactly a mind-boggling insight.

Then there’s Prisoner’s Dilemma. This one is more complicated:

Two people are arrested for a crime. The Police put them in separate rooms. They cannot communicate with each other. Before they did whatever it was that they did, they agreed not to talk if arrested. But now they have a problem:

Whoever talks first and incriminates the other will go free and the other will be sent up the river for a long time. But, if neither talks, neither will be prosecuted. If they both talk, they will get less time in the “Big House,” then if only one talks. So what should they do? According to game theory, their best move would be for both of them to talk. That way, they can minimize their punishment. (If you look up “Prisoner’s Dilemma” you will find subtle differences in the explanations, but the above is pretty close to the consensus.)

Thinking about this, I could not figure out how it could be relevant for conducting a successful job search. I recently had a long chat with a potential career counseling client, and I happened to say, and this is accurate, that “a job search is a numbers game.” After we hung up, the word “game” stuck with me and I thought about game theory. Was there a way, I asked myself, to use game theory to improve one’s chances of getting a job? I did not know. But just because I could not figure it out did not mean someone else hadn’t.

It was then that I discovered Messrs. Bennett and Miles’s book, Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals, which I highly recommend. (The page numbers refer to the eBook edition.) That said, the focus of their book is on having a successful career, not on conducting a successful job search. But, the two are not totally divorced from each other. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

Using game theory to advance your career is relatively easy as you can identify your competitors (basically, your colleagues). The same is not true for a job search. You don’t know your competition. It may be an internal candidate, a friend of someone at the company, or an external candidate like yourself. And then there are the countless decision makers! You just don’t know. And not knowing is what makes the job search “game” so difficult to play.

Bennett and Miles remind us (p. 3) of two important insights: General Eisenhower believed that plans were useless but planning was essential. And Samuel Goldwyn was of the opinion that the harder he worked the luckier he was.

Both comments are relevant to the job search game. First, you have to be able to think on your feet. (As a matter of fact, the authors put “agility” at the top of their list of necessary qualities to have a successful career.) You never know what is going to happen in a job search, especially in an interview. You can’t plan the entire process. (As Field Marshall Moltke famously said, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”) So you have to be ready to make the right move at a moment’s notice. (“Agility.”) Unlike, for example, chess, where you know your opponent and what they can do with each piece on the board just not what they will actually do, in a job search you do not know your opponent or what move they will make. There are no certainties in the job search game so you have to be ready for whatever move your opponent makes. What makes this more difficult, except when the “opponent” in an interviewer, is that you actually do not know everything that is happening. In fact, since you only know what you are doing and what you are being told (which may be honest or deception) you really know very little, if anything, of importance. The only good thing is that things become somewhat clearer when you reach the end of the game. Then, you may be able to plan.

Like Mr. Goldwyn said, if you work hard you can get lucky. Researching the company, and, most importantly the interviewers, may give you some insights into how they may act. Perhaps they have written or responded to posts on LinkedIn. Reading their writings you may be able to learn their thought processes. Reading their LinkedIn profiles can give you an idea of how they prioritize and organize their thoughts. Seeing who has most recently been hired by the company may give you an indication of what type of people they want.

In any event, Bennett and Miles are correct when they write (p. 7) that “one individual’s best move is often dependent on the anticipated moves of other players.” The “other players,” in our case, are the interviewers, decision makers (hiring managers, supervisors, owners) and, other candidates. Because you are dependent on them, you must know as much about them as possible.

One other point the authors make which is very valuable for a successful job search, is that “Making predictable moves in a multiplayer game is rarely a winning game strategy” (p.8). You have to be able to set yourself apart from the competition. The “unpredictable” move that I recommend is asking surprising questions. For example, as I have previously written, perhaps the best question you can ask an interviewer is, “If I get this job, how will I be able to make your life easier?”

To be perfectly honest, the reason I liked that question was because I saw it as the focus of the subsequent thank-you letter that my career counseling clients send to interviewers. But, within the context of game theory, there is a much more important reason for asking the question.

One way to “win” a “multi-player” game, like a job search, is to form partnerships. By asking the question, you imply that if they hire you, you will be working on their behalf, helping them to achieve their goals. (This is an exceptionally good strategy in the case of an older candidate being interviewed by someone who is worried the boss will decide to replace them with the candidate!)

Thinking of a job search as a game will help you focus on the bad and the good. The “bad” comes first because there are more bad aspects to the game than there are good: There are no set rules, you do not know everything about the players (or even who all the players are) and you know nothing about the competition. But the “good” is that you can prepare to differentiate yourself from the competition (even though you really don’t know what they may do) by having great questions to ask and knowing how to answer the questions you will be asked in a unique way.

Bottom line: Thinking about a job search as a multi-player game, and strategizing accordingly, could be the key to getting a job offer. Literally sitting down, closing your eyes, and picturing your job search as a board game, may help you to think in new ways. Simplifying a complex situation may, in the end, be what game theory is all about and the key to your getting that job offer!