Know your type

Four angel bunnies

The angel bunnies resented being put into boxes - but they hid it well

In last week’s post about employability I presented four approaches to employability (Careerist, Ritualist, Rebel and Retreatist).

This got me all enthusiastic about typologies that put people into boxes which describe their approach to career management and decision making. I’ve found a few, but I’m hoping that you can come up with some more for me.


Greenhaus grid

Greenhaus et al. (1995) developed a grid based on levels of career decisiveness. They divide people up based on whether they have or have not developed a clear career goal and whether or not they experience anxiety about their career decision making.

  • Developmental indecision – These people don’t know what they want – yet. They haven’t gathered enough information about themselves and their options.
  • Chronic indecision – These people show long-term indecisiveness. They may lack self-confidence or have situational constraints on their career options. They are decision procrastinators.
  • Vigilant decisiveness – These people have a career goal which they have based on sufficient personal and environmental information. Lucky them!
  • Hypervigilant decisiveness – These people have a career goal but it is based on too little research or self-reflection. The decision may be an impulsive response to external pressure or discomfort with uncertainty.

This concentration on having goals is all a bit linear, so let’s look for something a bit more boundaryless.


Boundaryless grid

In developing the concept of the boundaryless career, Sullivan & Arthur (2006) distinguished the concepts of physical mobility and psychological mobility. Applying these two dimensions gives us four approaches to career flexibility. Unfortunately, Sullivan and Arthur didn’t come up with any memorable names for these different approaches. Ideas welcome.

  • Quadrant 1 – Low physical and psychological mobility. These people (Stickers?) want to stay in the same job/company and they tend to have a fixed idea of what career success means.
  • Quadrant 2 – High physical mobility, low psychological mobility. These people (Hoppers?) are happy to move around but there is very little evolution of their career identity.
  • Quadrant 3 – High psychological mobility, low physical mobility. These people (Adapters?) may be constrained to work in a particular location or organisation but may seek growth and development through role innovation.
  • Quadrant 4 – High physical and psychological mobility. These people (Re-inventors?) are comfortable with the idea of changing roles and identities as well as changing environments. They probably have very diverse career histories.

Degrees of planfulness

Clarke (2009) describes four types of workers. Unfortunately, her four people don’t fit nicely into a grid, so I had to do a table. Still, she has given them interesting names.

Plodders Pragmatists Visionaries Opportunists
Career self-management: Unplanned Semi-planned Planned Semi-planned
Job mobility: Stable Stable Flexible Flexible
Career orientation: Present Present Future Future
Self-perceived employability: Low Low High High
  • Plodders view employability in terms of working hard and being loyal to a particular organisation. They tend to focus on immediate career goals and tend not think about how to develop themselves to maintain their attractiveness to an employer. Employability is about the organisation keeping you safe.
  • Pragmatists also tend to link their employability to the organisation they work for. However, they are more prepared to look for and take opportunities to advance within that organisation and increase their skills accordingly.
  • Visionaries have a long-term plan for their career and all their decisions and actions are geared towards achieving that goal. Employability is something that enables you to achieve a particular target.
  • Opportunists are prepared to adapt their career goals in light of new opportunities. They may change direction several times in their career. Therefore, employability is about maintaining your adaptability.

Careerists (whatever that means)

In studying the long-term impact of career guidance, Bimrose et al. (2008) identified four approaches to career development:

  • Evaluative Careerists engage in a considerable amount of reflection about their career. They are keen to do work that is consistent with their values and interests and so the possible future consequences of each career decision must be analysed and explored.
  • Strategic Careerists are driven by the idea of moving on in their careers. They like to have a clear goal and tend to use rational, pragmatic decision making to determine their actions.
  • Aspirational Careerists also have long-term career goals, but these are often distant or vague. They may do very little in the short term to bring them about and spend a lot of their energies coping with immediate concerns that are tangential to these goals.
  • Opportunistic Careerists respond to chance events and don’t tend to have clearly defined long-term career goals. They often rely on their intuition in making decisions about the opportunities to pursue.

Unfortunately, Bimrose et al. didn’t see fit to put these four careerists into a grid for us, so I’ve suggested three possible grids. Please feel free to suggest alternatives.

What other typologies are you aware of? Extra point will be given for the best names.

Further reading

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  1. #1 by Dan on 14 February 2011 - 20:50

    I think Clarke’s worker types for degree of planfulness map seamlessly onto Sullivan & Arthur’s flexibility grid. Quad 1: Plodders, Quad 2: Visionaries, Quad 3: Pragmatists, Quad 4: Opportunists. I can anticipate objection to putting the visionaries in quad 2, but what is pursuit of a vision if it is not done with some degree of inflexibility?

    • #2 by David Winter on 15 February 2011 - 09:51

      I did wonder about that, but I was too tired to think about it. I’m not sure that they map completely smoothly. However, you’re right that planned goal focus often goes hand in hand with a certain amount of inflexibility.

  2. #3 by Jim bright on 15 February 2011 - 07:48


    • #4 by David Winter on 15 February 2011 - 09:42

      Care to elaborate? (Do I hear something about attractors?)

  3. #5 by Jim Bright on 19 February 2011 - 23:08

    I am most interested in career development from the counselling perspective. That generally means assisting an individual one-on-one, or in small groups. From this perspective, I think we get to appreciate at least two things: people are complex and subject to complex influences; and that both of these are subject to continual and unpredictable (at least in the mid-to long term) change.

    From such a perspective, the argument for reducing a person to a type becomes less compelling. Does reducing that individual to a type – putting them in a box – help or hinder the counselling process?

    When you are looking for trends across populations, then identifying types as Bimrose et al did is perfectly sensible, indeed useful. The results tell us something useful about some common approaches people take with their careers.

    However when confronted by the individual client, it is plausible that this person might be an erstwhile opportunistic careerist who now is tired of living by their wits, or has new financial responsibilities, has been injured, has been subject to a credit crunch, has carer responsibilities for an elder parent, or just about any other conceivable personal set of issues that make them a “traitor to their type”. In other words under such circumstances (of change and complexity) the appellation of type actually hinders the counselling process.

    Types are generated by averaging across large samples, in which individual differences are assumed to cancel each other out “all other things being equal”. However for the individual, such variations do not necessarily, indeed I’d argue rarely, cancel each other out. There is no rational reason to believe that a person who is seriously injured at work necessitating a career change, will automatically enjoy some positive unplanned event in some other part of their career to “even out their luck”.

    So the assumptions on which types are based, work at the group or societal level but not necessarily at the personal level. Think of this provocative example: Gender. Treating men and women separately is a highly contentious thing to do and with good reason. Indeed the onus is on anyone wanting to draw generalisations about the sexes to demonstrate why it is useful AND fair to do so. One place where this might be acceptable is to consider the needs for public toilet facilities at a public venue. There might (stress might) be different needs between the sexes in the design and number of facilities provided.

    Now consider that from a counselling perspective. If we were to make inferences about our individual client’s needs simply by categorising them as male or female, there would properly be an outcry, and the counselling session would not, to understate it, be very effective. This illustrates that types can work at the group level, but not necessarily or automatically at the individual level – indeed what can be a beneficial insight at one level might be an offensive oversimplification at another level.

    That said, there often comes a time in counselling when considerations of a person’s individual circumstances needs to be linked back into the broader realities of what is around them, including often the labour market. Notwithstanding ideas about fitting work into your life rather than vice-versa, there is still a notion of fit to deal with.

    When making this link between the personal and the societal, or person and work, some (note some) typologies may help us by acting as bridges between these ideas. This then provides us with criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of different typologies at the individual level. Do they have anything to offer as bridges into work for instance? Generally speaking gender does not. For instance one’s sex is – by legislation – irrelevant for gaining employment.

    David, you provocatively raised the issue of Attractors (from out Chaos Theory of Careers – Pryor & Bright, 2011, book published by Routledge). See earlier Careers in Theory posts for a detailed description, critique and rebuttal! Attractors are descriptions of how people self-limit their complex systems – by reducing behaviour to goals (point attractor), roles (pendulum attractor), routines (torus attractor) or operate as open ever changing systems (change or Strange attractor).

    This may appear to be another typology, but such an interpretation would be mistaken. Attractors are not descriptions of people’s traits, rather they describe how people may be limiting their system at the time. Indeed we argue that the natural state is the Change Attractor, and that it takes a lot of energy to maintain any of the closed-system attractors, and even then they will over time inevitably break down – change – (cf evidence of goal setting which proves effective in the short to medium term, but generally is far less effectively in the longer term).

    Furthermore Attractors dont operate like traits in other important respects – for instance Attractors may be embedded or nested within other attractors – so one might have a generally very open-minded person who is good with change, but they may impose (or more accurately attempt to impose and maintain) a rigid routine with regards to walking their dog each evening following the same route. Here a torus attractor is embedded within a Strange (or Change) Attractor. Thus in counselling, we are actually trying to help people change and embrace their strange attractor. It is about change and complexity, not reducing it.

    The point of my commentary here is not to bang on about Attractors again, rather it is to raise some points about typologies, levels of analysis, utility, and criteria for evaluating typologies. It is my view that if we are conducting one-on-one counselling then we first need to understand a client in all of their complexity (as best we can) before trying to box them into pre-determined categories. Later when we have an understanding of the person from their own perspective, it may be useful to to explore how these perceptions can be bridged into bigger social structures (like jobs for instance) and sometimes some typologies may be useful here to help achieve this..perhaps. However, even here, it may be that it is more useful here not to categorise but rather to use continuous interval scales.

    In sum, before we attempt to oversimplify our client by reducing and boxing them into a stereotype, we need to be very clear that to do so a) does not diminish the client, b) has demonstrable practical counselling utility c) that the limits of application and the potential for and degree of change has been fully considered d) that it’s application is more in the client’s interests than the counsellor’s need for speed and simplicity and e) that the typology is empirically valid for the person (not the demographic) to whom it is applied and f) it forms only one part, not greater than any other single part of a counselling process.

    • #6 by David Winter on 21 February 2011 - 18:00

      Hi Jim

      Thanks for replying.

      I completely agree with you about the dangers of taking concepts developed by generalising from large samples and applying them to the complex individual in front of you. (Hence my healthy scepticism of most psychometric tools.)

      However, I do think that typologies (and for that matter psychometric tools) can be useful in an intelligent dialogue with a client if you are clear that they represent idealised generalisations of particular behaviours and that an individual’s behaviour can straddle any categorisation system.

      Having a name for particular types of behaviour can help you to notice those behaviours in yourself more easily, and then question their appropriateness. That’s why I like easy to grasp names and why I like having more than one typology to work with – it shows you that there are a number of ways you can cut the cake.

  4. #7 by Jim Bright on 21 February 2011 - 21:50

    I take your point(s) David. I wonder however whether the counsellor’s intention to make statements such as “in some respects you resemble” is heard by the client as “I am a”. Indeed I suspect some counsellors themselves prefer the simpler “You are a” statement – sounds more definitive and insightful nes pas?

    The key is the degree to which to conversation really is “intelligent” as you put it.

    Anecdotally, I am struck how many people subjected to one popular typology tend to make “I am statements” about their type, and if defending the typology often seem to say “I always come up as a “.

    Typologies seem to be used a lot in training contexts and this may undermine any subsequent “intelligent” talk. I think it doesn’t help that a proportion trainers believe training is simply a series of parlour games, and in that context use simple typologies and encourage the “players” to substitute themselves for their type. It is one possible mechanism that encourages people to approach type in an unintelligent manner.

    • #8 by David Winter on 28 February 2011 - 17:47

      That’s why I stay away from statements and stick to questions until I get a feel for how the client is going to take them. Even then, it’s not about me making a diagnosis but presenting ideas and getting the client to analyse their own behaviour.

  5. #9 by Donna Holmes on 10 December 2013 - 01:38

    I’m a non-expert who just learned of the term “protean career” today from a management scholar who interviewed me as a subject in a career research study. Stumbling on this literature feels like a real gift. In a lot of ways it “normalizes” my own career trajectory for the first time (I’m an academic biologist who has chosen a non-traditional path.) I’ve come to my own peace about my career choices and constraints, but If I had found out about this conceptual framework sooner, I think it would have been really therapeutic for me, and saved me a lot of angst about feeling “less than” other science faculty members.

    I can see the value in all of the perspectives expressed here (I thought the counseling person was especially eloquent). Any conceptual framework to describe or explain human behavior will have flaws. But I do think there would be utility in being able to use some of these schemas to analyze one’s own orientation to career in a way that provides insight into one’s decision-making processes, and places these in terms of a wider, constructive perspective (just like any other work that leads to psychological, personal or professional growth).

    • #10 by David Winter on 10 December 2013 - 06:52


      Thank you for your comments. Many of my clients have expressed a similar sense of isolation. Confused final year students believing that all their classmates are “sorted”. New career entrants believing they are the only people who have “fallen into” their career path. Career changers who believe they are the only ones experiencing doubts about their previous choices. People who have been promoted believing they are the only ones experiencing “impostor phenomenon”.

      Discovering that there is a name for what you are experiencing helps you to realise that you are not alone, that you are not the first person to tread this path.

      I agree that all conceptual frameworks describing human behaviour are flawed but, if they help people to give a name to their experiences and thus to feel less isolated, they serve a useful purpose.


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