picture of a person thinking about communication and problem-solving

Contracts. Tenure. Unions. A career’s worth of institutional knowledge. Although these once meant iron-clad job security, all four have been on the decline for some time now. Add recessions, layoffs, and automation to the mix, and job security looks more elusive than ever.

But looks can be deceiving. Could the definition of job security simply be evolving into something less straightforward than a fixed-term contract and a gold watch after 25 years of service? We believe so.

Technology seems to create a new job for each one it automates away… but displaced workers are rarely qualified to jump straight into them. And service industry jobs have been increasing for decades… but the pay is notoriously low. So although it’s easy to secure a new job these days, it may not be a job you actually feel secure in.

Job security (n.)

The state of having a job you’re unlikely to be dismissed from.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you like your current job and would prefer to hang onto it, thank you very much. Of course, factors beyond your control, like layoffs, may make this difficult. But all other things being equal, there’s a lot you can do to enhance your job security. The trick is to recognize the things that don’t serve you anymore, unlearn them, and replace them with behaviors that help future-proof your career. Even if they strike you as counterintuitive at first.

Job security starts with your mindset

The fact that you’re reading this means you’ve already embraced a fundamental notion: burying your head in the sand while disruption barrels toward you won’t make it go away. As the mining and manufacturing sectors attest, that only guarantees you’ll get knocked flat on your arse. Better to face the future with eyes open. Let’s look at a few more attitudes that could use adjusting.

Stop complying, and start taking initiative. Following the rules and adhering to policy used to get you recognized as a reliable straight shooter. Now, it makes you look like you either lack critical thinking skills or don’t have the courage to suggest improvements. Not that you should behave like a bull in a china shop. But do speak up when the status quo isn’t working and work with your colleagues to make improvements. This demonstrates courage, problem-solving skills, and teamwork – all of which are increasingly important. (More on that below.) If you’re a manager or company leader, your job is to give your team members enough autonomy to act. Think “guard rails” instead of “process”.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Mahatma Gandhi

Stop resisting change, and start embracing it. Technological change in the workplace can feel especially scary – like the robots are taking your job. But really, they’re taking away the boring, routine aspects of your job so you’re freed up to work on more interesting things and/or accomplish more. For example, software used to be tested manually, click by tedious click. Now, thanks to automation, quality assurance engineers can test more functionality in an hour than they used to cover in a week. Thus, they can spend more time identifying risks and analyzing defect trends. Of course, tech isn’t the only flavor of change.

The key is to look for ways change can benefit you, and position yourself to take advantage. Think about what you can do with the time that tools are saving you. Ideally, it’s something different, deeper, and more innovative than what you’re doing now.

Stop pontificating, and start learning. Being the most authoritative voice in the room used to earn you respect. But the pages of history are littered with emperors who, as it turned out, had no clothes. Don’t rest on your legacy of being the expert in X or Y. The world changes too quickly for that. Instead, become a life-long learner. Have the humility to listen – as in, listening to understand instead of listening for a chance to correct. Colleagues from other departments or younger generations often see things that are in your blind spot.

Soft skills are the new hard skills

Every so often, the World Economic Forum reports on job skills that are trending up vs. down. The theme is unmistakable. “Hard skills”, especially those involving manual dexterity or resource management, are becoming less important, largely due to technology. Meanwhile, “soft skills” like communication and problem-solving are becoming more so. No matter your industry or position on the org chart, there are high-level skills that will help you adapt to change and stay in control of your career trajectory.

Decision-making. Whereas this used to be the exclusive domain of “the boss”, savvy bosses are now delegating decisions to the lowest level possible. If you’re the one doing the work, it makes sense for you to decide how that work is done because you know the ins and outs better than your boss. You may also be less likely to let office politics influence decisions about it. Indeed, research we conducted showed that apolitical decision-making was prevalent amongst high-achieving teams but rare amongst low-achieving teams. Beware, though: sneaky cognitive biases can impede your ability to make decisions effectively (here’s how to avoid that).

Ability to focus. Texts, email, chat, shoulder-taps from colleagues, and the stress that comes from being a 21st-century human just won’t leave us alone. If you happen to work in an open floorplan office, distractions are an even bigger challenge. Yet focus is critical for doing our best work – the kind of work that makes us stand out – whether we’re on an assembly line, caring for patients, or solving a complicated problem. If you’re not already cultivating focus-friendly habits around your phone and the barrage of notifications that fly across your computer screen, now is the time to start.

8 emotional intelligence articles that help you work better with others

Emotional intelligence. This is the key to being a great collaborator and satisfying your customers. If you can empathize with your customers’ challenges, resolve disagreements with co-workers constructively, and help create an environment where everyone feels included and valued, you’ll deliver better work. High emotional intelligence and empathy make you a better communicator, to boot.

Experimentation. Hypothesis and control groups aren’t just for the lab coat set anymore. Experimentation now plays an important role in how we improve everything from education to user engagement. You may not need to become an expert in hard-core research methodology, but do get comfortable trying new approaches to your work (or your personal life!) and incorporating what you learn.

On-the-job behavior matters, too

We’re not talking about blasting your music or leaving dirty dishes in the break room sink (but don’t do either). We’re talking about collaboration. The skills we’ve discussed here won’t get you very far if you’re not complementing them with the right behaviors. 90 percent of companies are tackling problems so complex they rely on teams with diverse skill sets and experiences. To survive the robot revolution, you need to communicate, coordinate, and constructively disagree with people who think, look, and act differently from you.

Sharing information. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that hoarding information makes you more valuable. It doesn’t. You know what does? Sharing knowledge and ideas freely, even when it doesn’t benefit you directly. When you make information about your project or job role open to others, they’ll achieve more and interrupt you less (which means you’ll achieve more, too).

Giving and receiving feedback. Author and former tech exec Kim Scott says the key to giving effective feedback is to “care personally and challenge directly” – to blend candor and compassion – and to make it timely. (Note to managers: nothing in an employee’s annual review should come as a surprise to them. Feedback is part of your job all year round.) Focus on critiquing their work or actions, not their worth as a person. When it comes to receiving peer feedback, assume the other person has good intentions, even if it’s difficult to hear at first. Once your emotions have died down, you’ll probably find one or two points on which *sigh* they’re right.

Owning mistakes. If you mess up, you’ll earn respect if you’re the first to acknowledge it. Then go the extra mile by sharing how you (and your colleagues!) can avoid similar mistakes in the future, or solicit their ideas if you’re stumped.

Listening. Giving others the attention they deserve seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it’s worth bringing back. Resist the temptation to pull out your phone in the middle of a face-to-face conversation or open your laptop in a meeting to “take notes”. People know when you’re genuinely tuned in and will reward you with their loyalty and helpfulness. Also, remember good ideas can come from anywhere so be listening everywhere, even to people you don’t like. Learn to separate the message from the messenger.

Showing vulnerability. If you’re working through a personal issue and aren’t your usual self, it’s ok to say so. If you’ve taken on more than you can handle, don’t work 12-hour days until you’re so burned out the quality of your work suffers. Asking for support eases your burden and lets your colleagues know they can do the same when they’re struggling. Psychological safety for the win.

Security and stability are different things

In our personal lives, the ability to get along with others and make our way in the world is known as our “social currency”. It’s usually based on things like trustworthiness, generosity, and ability to crack a good joke, though some use fear and intimidation to get what they want. The same concept applies to our careers. The old currency of business was compliance. The new currencies are courage, curiosity, and creativity.

Getting a job and coasting through until retirement doesn’t work anymore. If you look closely at the most successful people around you, chances are you’ll notice them constantly unlearning old habits or attitudes and freeing themselves up for new things. Life-long learning and adaptability: that’s the modern definition of job security.

Here’s the path to job security in the 21st century