Non-stop action

Savage Chickens - Action MovieI came across the Contextual Action Theory (CAT) of careers and counselling quite a while ago. It was developed in the 1990s by Richard Young and Ladislav Valach.

When I first read about it, my immediate reaction was ‘I like this. It appeals to my penchant for simple, well-constructed, easy to remember theories’. But there was one problem. I couldn’t for the life of me think how it would be useful.

Actually, that’s not quite true. It was quite obvious that this was a useful theory and that it was already being used… by researchers.

Valach and Young have been using CAT as a framework for investigating individual’s career choices and the career counselling interaction for a number of years.

However, I couldn’t work out how it might be used by career practitioners in their work with clients. As usual, it was lack of imagination on my part, rather than lack of potential in the theory.

Now, I have come up with two ways in which thinking about this theory might enhance my practice.

What is Contextual Action Theory?

Everything you do is an action.

Phone your grandma to ask for advice – that’s an action. Hand in your resignation letter – that’s an action. Apply for a job – that’s an action. Decide to go to a careers fair – that’s an action. Realise it’s raining and so decide not to bother going to the careers fair – that’s an action.

Each of these actions is something you do in the immediate context, usually with a particular short-term goal in mind. And every action has a number of characteristics:

  • a manifest behaviour – what you actually do
  • an internal process – how you decided what to do and what you think you intended to achieve by this action
  • a social meaning – how this action would be interpreted in the context (what goals or intentions would be assumed by someone observing this action)

The last characteristic highlights the point that few of these actions will be performed in isolation. Many of the actions you take will be in cooperation with someone else, will impact on someone else or will be as a result of someone else’s actions. This highlights another important aspect of CAT: joint action.

Actions accumulate into projects

Actions happen in the short term and are linked to more immediate goals, but they may also be part of something bigger. Quitting your job, going (or not going) to a careers fair, applying for new job — they could all be part of a project called ‘Get myself a better job’. And this might be part of a bigger project called ‘Become more financially stable’, which might be part of a more ambitious project called ‘Be in a position to support my kids through university’. And so on… a bit like a Russian doll… Each project is just one component of a bigger project with broader goals and associated with a longer time frame.

The wider context in which actions take place gives each short-term action a greater long-term meaning. We are more able to see the point of an individual action when we know how it fits into the bigger picture of a project.

Except that’s a bit too simplistic and linear. Because ‘Get myself a better job’ could also be part of a different project called ‘Find more meaningful work’ or ‘Don’t get stuck in a rut’. And they could be part of a bigger project called ‘Be happier with my life’ or ‘Fulfil my potential’.  So each action or each mini-project could be part of a number of different bigger projects simultaneously. Therefore, the wider meaning of an individual action will depend on which project you think it belongs to.

Projects accumulate into career

As the projects get bigger and more complex, and as the time frame stretches to the length of someone’s working life, you have a career. This is a wider life-narrative. It is the notion of career which gives ultimate meaning to all the subordinate projects and actions. In this sense, career is not just to do with a sequence of jobs; it is all the accumulated things that you do to give ultimate meaning to your life.

Career gives meaning to projects. Projects give meaning to actions.

What is it good for?

So, it’s an interesting theory. It incorporates individual agency and social context. It scales up from the smallest most concrete incident to the most abstract, over-arching concept. It combines objective and subjective interpretations of career. It’s got a lot going for it…but the question is ‘Is it useful?’

I think the answer is ‘yes’. It’s useful in relation to two of the main obsessions of this blog: enriching reflective practice and exploring a less simplistic view of action planning and motivation.

Reflection on actions

It occurred to me that the way Young and Valach were using CAT — to investigate the process of career counselling as a particular form of joint action — could be translated into a technique to use within reflective practice and peer review.

One of the things that Young and Valach do is the ‘self-confrontation interview’. They video a career discussion. Then they make the participants watch it and comment on their own actions within the process. Both the adviser and the client are asked to describe their thoughts and feelings at each point in the discussion and their interpretations of what was going on at the time.

From the perspective of CAT, each action has its own short-term goal, but it is also part of one or more projects, which will have their own wider goals. One technique is to get people to name and explicitly articulate the goals of the projects that were active during the discussion. So a coach might have projects around ‘building a rapport’, ‘understanding the client’s needs’ or ‘getting the client to look at their situation from a different angle’. The client may have projects such as ‘getting the information I need to make my next step’ ‘feeling more in control’ or ‘feeling more confident about my choice’.

Having identified the active projects you can determine whether they were explicitly acknowledged or just operating in the background. Were they completed or left hanging?

You can also look at each individual or joint action that took place in the discussion and try to identify which project they belonged to. Were they fully serving the overall goal of that project? Were they part of more than one project? Did they start of belonging to one project but got hijacked by a different project? Were there any actions that didn’t contribute to active projects?

I have put together a simple worksheet based on CAT to help in the reflective process (pdf).

Taking positions

As well as looking at your own actions in relation to your internal processes (your thoughts, emotions and intentions), you could also look at your actions from the context of social meaning. A useful technique for doing this might be something like Perceptual Positions from NLP. So, your actions might make sense when seen from the perspective of your own projects, but how might they be interpreted as part of one of the client’s projects? And how might your joint actions be interpreted from the perspective of an outsider with different intentions, e.g. your institution?

Dyer et al. (2010) contains a detailed analysis of a somewhat dysfunctional career discussion. It uses CAT to show how some of the actions of the participants appeared, on the surface, to belong to openly stated projects, but they were also contributing to unacknowledged projects of the counsellor and client. This double purpose and the subsequent ambiguous intention of the actions led to misunderstandings and frustration.

Actions and planning

Remember the Theory of Planned Behaviour? The more that a particular action can be linked to a desirable outcome, the more likely it is that someone will follow through with it. If you can help a client to understand that a particular action could contribute to a number of different projects, all with desirable goals, that could increase the chances that they will undertake that action.

The action of talking to someone already in a particular profession could be part of ‘Getting inside information on this role’ and part of ‘Seeing if I identify with people like this’ and of ‘Starting to build my career network’ and part of ‘Developing my interpersonal skills’ and part of ‘Reducing the risk of making a mistake’. The more birds you can kill with one stone, the more likely you are to take the trouble to throw it.

If you can work out which project has the most meaning for a client, you can frame the action as part of that project to increase the likelihood that they take that action, and at the same time you can show how it would simultaneously have benefits for other projects.

You can also work in either direction. You could start with the wider, more over-arching goals and work down through projects to individual actions. Or you could focus on individual actions and explore how larger projects might emerge from them. This gives you the flexibility to work with people who are more future goal focused or more immediate opportunity focused.

In the end, I just think the idea of ‘projects’ is a really useful concept to use with clients. It may be no different in reality from the idea of working with short-term goals leading to long-term goals, but perhaps it places a greater emphasis on the process rather than just the outcomes.

Further reading

  • Young, R.A., Valach, L., Dillabough, J., Dover, C. & Matthes, G. (1994). Career research from an action perspective: The self-confrontation procedure. The Career Development Quarterly, 43, 185-196.
  • Young, R.A. & Valach, L. (2000). Reconceptualizing career psychology: An action theoretical perspective. In A. Collin & R.A. Young (Eds.), The Future of Career (pp. 181-196). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Young, R. (2004). The construction of career through goal-directed action Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(3), 499-514. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2003.12.012
  • Dyer, B., Pizzorno, M., Qu, K., Valach, L., Marshall, S. & Young, R. (2010). Unconscious processes in a career counselling case: an action-theoretical perspective British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 38(3), 343-362. DOI: 10.1080/03069885.2010.482395

Related posts: Constructing successful careers, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, What makes a theory useful?

P.S. This is the 100th post on Careers – in Theory. I think we deserve a cake!





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  1. #1 by Richard Young on 26 October 2010 - 18:36

    It was very rewarding for me as one of the developers of contextual action theory to read David’s thoughtful reflection on this approach. My colleague Ladislav Valach has always felt that it had very practical applications, so it was great that David took up the challenge in suggesting some ways that it can be used.
    For those readers who want more, we have just published a book entitled “Transition to Adulthood: Action, Projects and Counseling” in which even more practical suggestions and case examples are described. The link is

    • #2 by David Winter on 27 October 2010 - 09:56


      Thank you for replying.

      Do you fancy giving us any sneak previews of these practical suggestions -or possibly sending me a free copy of your book! 😉 ?

      • #3 by Richard Young on 28 October 2010 - 14:59

        David If you agree to review the book for CareersinTheory, I will ask the publisher to send you a copy. Send me your postal and e-mail addresses.

  2. #4 by Vinny on 28 October 2010 - 14:35

    Hi David, I also really like this theory for it’s simplicity!

    I love your worksheet and if I can get round to organising a video camera, I may use it for my next peer review.

    I like your thoughts on the theory of planned behaviour, and actually think it could help to have a bit of a top down approach rather than just a cumulative amount of projects.

    I’ve not seen any reserach to back this up, but my general feeling and from my own decisions, it seems to me that people find it easier to take action when they have a smaller and more specific projects to achieve. So it may help to have a top down approach to the discussion. If they talk about “wanting a fulfilling job” then it may be a good idea, not just to find the other related projects which tie in with the same action, but drill down a bit from the larger to the smaller and then even smaller projects and eventually into the actions.

    You could also work your way up from actions to see whether the things they are currently doing, tie in with the larger projects which they see as important.

    Not sure if this reply makes any sense – It’s been a while since I’ve tried to make my brain think in any depth about theories.

  1. Contextual Action Theory featured in “Careers – in Theory” Blog

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