Do we need more sophisticated definitions of career success?
Although I have got a lot of mileage out of the journal article I wrote about in my last post — I’ve dropped snippets from it into a few talks and workshops lately — there is something very limiting about the ideas of career success used within it.
Meta-analyses are good for getting a broad overview of a subject but they tend to erode the subtle distinctions that are present in an issue as complex as career success.
Are pay, promotion and job satisfaction the only ways of measuring career success?
Lorna Dargan’s comment highlighted another aspect of success and this led me to hunt out other definitions and conceptualisations.
So, let us attempt to restore some granularity to our understanding of this topic. Our first stop is an article published in the same year as Ng et al.
Peter Heslin (2005) has asked some searching questions about the measures that researchers use to evaluate career success. In addition, he has applied social comparison theory to broaden the simple objective–subjective dichotomy.
Every career has its own objective, measurable outcomes that could provide an indication of career success. And these are not necessarily linked to pay and promotion.
…both school teachers and academic mentors often frame their career success in terms of hard data on the learning and other attainments of their students and proteges. Similarly, bus and taxi drivers conceivably base their career success on their years of driving without an accident, industrial designers on e-mails of peer recognition for their creativity, and doctors on the proportion of emergency patients’ lives they save.
Obviously, the problem with these objective measures is that they vary from occupation to occupation, which makes it hard to compare success between different sectors. But that lack of comparability also applies to pay and promotions. Different occupations have different career and salary structures. Many modern career routes do not easily map on to a traditional hierarchical career ladder.
In the same way, there are other ways of assessing someone’s satisfaction with their career than just asking how happy they are with their job. Career satisfaction is more than just how you feel about your job in the present. It also includes an evaluation of your career journey so far and an anticipation of your future prospects.
Individuals may consider that they have a successful and satisfying career even if they don’t enjoy their job. Perhaps their job allows them to provide for their family or allows them to spend time doing something else they love. Perhaps they don’t enjoy the job itself but value the contribution that it makes to something they consider important.
Subjective career success thus includes reactions to actual and anticipated career-related attainments across (a) a broader time frame than one’s immediate job satisfaction, as well as (b) a wider range of outcomes, such as a sense of identity, purpose, and work-life balance.
Success, compared to what?
Heslin proposes that success is not an absolute measure. One can only evaluate one’s level of success as relative to something else. For some people this something else will be an internal aspiration — how your actual progress compares to your expectations for yourself. For other people, it is more about how you are doing compared to others.
Adding this dimension of self-referent vs other-referent comparison to the objective vs subjective dimension, produces a few more subtleties.
|Self-referent||e.g. my financial and promotional aspirations||e.g. my goals for work-life balance and fulfilment|
|Other-referent||e.g. my pay and social standing relative to my peer group||e.g. my stimulation and fun relative to my peers|
- What are the objective measures of success that apply to your career?
- Is your subjective evaluation of your career influenced most by the past, the present or the future?
- What comparison do you use when evaluating your career success: your own expectations or the experiences of your peers?
- Do you project your own assumptions of what career success means onto your clients?
- How often do you get clients to explore the issue of what success means for them?
- Heslin, P. (2005). Conceptualizing and evaluating career success. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(2), 113-136. DOI: 10.1002/job.270