Mine! All mine!

Having recently run a workshop on differences in cultural communication, my eye was caught by a fascinating study just published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology. The authors were looking into the explanations people from different countries gave for their career changes. The reasons given were divided into internal factors (e.g. desire for a change, wanting to develop) and external factors (e.g. organisational restructuring, luck). So far, so standard attribution theory.


But who or what is responsible for the change?

The interesting bit was when they looked at country differences. The career changers from the USA exclusively gave internal reasons for change, whereas those in China gave mostly external reasons. Career changers in Europe tended to offer a mixture.

Chudzikowski, K., et al. (2009) Career transitions and their causes: A country-comparative perspective. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82(4), 825-49.

The authors explore a number of reasons for the difference in attribution:

  • At the time of the study the USA was undergoing fairly positive growth and so most of the career transitions were positive, whereas in China there was more dramatic upheaval going on. Generally speaking, people tend to attribute positive outcomes to their own efforts and negative outcomes to external factors.
  • In a more collectivist culture such as China it may be considered boasting to claim too much personal responsibility for success, whereas the individualistic American Dream encourages people to see themselves as active shapers of their own destiny.

To me this is a lovely example of the narrative approach to careers. The story of our career is something we make up to explain to ourselves and to others how we have got to our current situation. The extent to which we are the active protagonists in our career story or just hapless pawns of blind fate will depend on our cultural heritage, the prevailing socio-economic conditions and our individual personality.

Talking of personality, it was by thinking about the Judging-Perceiving dimension of MBTI that I came up with the following exercise I sometimes use in career change workshops. However, it could relate directly to the other issues discussed in the study.

  1. Tell the participants to imagine that a reporter is coming to ask them about their life/career story so far. He wants them to prepare for the interview by identifying some key events or highlights in their story that they can talk about. The reporter is keen to take a particular angle on the story…
  2. Tell them that the reporter is very interested in the influence of chance on a person’s career path. So he wants them to describe their story as a series of unlooked-for chance events that have happened to them and opportunities they have taken advantage of. He wants them to focus on the things that they had little or no control over in their career journey.
  3. Give them a few minutes to think and jot down a few ideas.
  4. Then tell them that the reporter has changed his mind. He now wants to explore the angle of individual choice and personal action in career development. So he wants them to describe their story as a series of active decisions they have made, actions they have taken and definite goals they have set for themselves and achieved.
  5. Again, give them a few minutes to think.
  6. Finally, get participants to discuss which one of these approaches, if any, was harder to do. Why might that be? What does it say about their approach to career management?
  • What cultural or personality-based assumptions about individual autonomy and fate do you have?
  • How might these findings affect work with international students?

Related post: Outliers


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  1. #1 by Liz Wilkinson on 7 December 2009 - 10:52

    Interesting stuff. Links with my recent reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. It seems to me that too much focus on either perspective can lead to lower self-esteem. Often we ARE victim of circumstance AND there is often something creative we can do with the circumstance. I wonder how a more extreme world view either way relates to this morning’s news item on the increase in depression. I remember reading somewhere that more fatalistic cultures were happier because they blamed themselves less. So can we use this to encourage clients (and ourselves) to lighten up?

  2. #2 by Vinny on 7 December 2009 - 12:32

    I agree that we shouldn’t focus purely on either perspective, particularly for clients who have big disadvantages (i.e. born in August to empoverished parents).

    For these clients, I think it is important to highlight the personal responsibility and they ways in which they can change their circumstances to give them an advantage. (i.e. schemes like Reach, employability and the benefits of networking etc)

  1. Are you following the script? « Careers – in Theory
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