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What stops self-driven careers in their tracks?


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What stops self-driven careers in their tracks? This was the question asked by Valerie Rowles, our excellent provocateur, at our latest Virtual Roundtable in July.

There were many takeaways from this event, including:

  • Why some employees continue to feel “stuck”, even when offered the chance to “self-drive” their career
  • The adverse impact and feelings that this can have on these individuals
  • What organisations need to understand and do to overcome these challenges

Valerie is a Senior Consultant with us here at the Career Innovation Company, with over thirty years of experience as a career development professional. A special area of research interest for her has been the way in which language is used in talking about careers, and this is where she began her presentation.

What does the term “self-driven” career really mean?

The metaphor of a “self-driven” career is too rarely scrutinised. Valerie highlighted the current ubiquity of the term in the lexicon of many employers, given the nature of the employer-employee relationship and the rise of “Protean”[1] careers.

“Protean” careers involve frequent changes of organisation, work setting, and job content, as opposed to more traditional careers, with their commitment to a single organisation or line of work. The emphasis is on the importance of a self-directed approach, driven by the individual, rather than the organisation.

While self-driven careers represent a high-level soundbite, argued Valerie, things are far from straightforward in reality. To merely tell employees that they have the power and the means to direct their own careers, ignores what is required for this to become a reality.

Secure foundations required

A basic requirement for self-driven careers to flourish is a sense of psychological safety. An individual should feel able to develop their own career, without fear of negative consequences to their self-image, status, or career. This means having trusting and supportive relationships with colleagues, to boost their confidence and provide advocacy.

Without this, many employees can become fixated on the barriers that stop them reaching their potential – and become stuck. It’s not hard to find people who feel this way in most organisations.

What feeling stuck in one’s career looks like

How does feeling stuck show itself in the behaviour of employees? Valerie’s experience of working with people who are stuck suggests one or more of the following ways. They:

  • Carry on with doing things in their daily working lives that clearly aren’t working
  • Repeat the same story around an aspect of their work
  • Struggle to listen to others’ perspectives or take in questions
  • Automatically respond with “Yes, but…” phrasing to proposed alternative ways of doing things
  • Blame themselves or panic in the face of an inability to fix problems or control situations
  • Become resentful towards those who ‘have it easy’ or seem less stuck in their careers

What feeling “stuck” does to employees

When an employee feels stuck in their career development, Valerie said, the effects can show themselves in one or more of the following ways:

  • Low energy and mood
  • Diminished self-confidence
  • Relinquished career/life aspirations
  • Rumination and depression
  • A ripple effect, leading to interpersonal tensions

The obstacles to progress can feel insurmountable, and people will increasingly lack the energy or knowledge to tackle them.

For all of these reasons, an employer that simply tells those stuck in their careers that they need to change their mindset and self-drive their career, is unlikely to have the desired effect. So, what needs to change?

Finding a better way

The starting point for addressing these challenges are to understand what contributes to them. Drawing on “career inaction theory” proposed by De Vos and Verbruggen (2020)[2] there are three main reasons:

  • Fear and anxiety. Career choices usually have an uncertain outcome, something that all humans struggle with
  • Mental overload. This is because the career choices made are often extraordinarily complex. And …
  • Short-termism. This develops because preparing for the long-term entails giving up something that may feel safe and familiar in the present day

These factors are all likely to inhibit the capacity to self-drive a career. Valerie considered how Frazier and Hooker (2006)[3] talk about the concept of “possible selves” as the start of a remedy. Employees who can picture ‘hoped-for’ self-representations of themselves are seen to develop the motivation to reach development goals and experience a greater sense of control in a career.

How could organisations use “possible selves” theory to help their employees? To help create the workplace psychological safety needed for ‘hoped-for’ possible selves to emerge, Valerie proposed four main areas:

  • Acceptance. This means being tolerant of risk taking, failure and giving consistent support to an individual’s career decisions.
  • Transparency. Amongst many other things, this involves the business’s diversity practices and being open about development opportunities.
  • Storytelling. The promotion of the widest range of career success stories is essential. They need to show that while there are a variety of paths that employees could take, each is highly valued by the organisation.
  • Scaffolding. This is about moving beyond simply providing self-development information and onto a mediated approach including access to coaching and mentoring, and facilitating cross-functional networking and social learning.

It was clear that the many leaders participating in this latest roundtable were highly engaged with Valerie’s assessment of self-driven careers and how to support all employees to benefit from them.

In a forthcoming blog, David North of the Career Innovation Company, who also spoke at the roundtable, will give a comprehensive assessment of the ways in which organisations contribute towards people feeling stuck in their careers – and the remedies that they could deploy to overcome them.

At the Career Innovation Company, we support people to manage dynamic careers through solutions such as our Be Bold in your career programme, workshops and Career pulse diagnostic. These not only help self-driven careers become a reality and avoid some of the challenges outlined, but also leverage learning and talent mobility more generally to drive business growth.

[1] Briscoe, J.P., and Hall, D.T., (2006) ‘The interplay of boundaryless and protean careers: Combinations and implications’. Journal of Vocational Behavior 69(1):4-18

[2] De Vos, A., & Verbruggen, M., (2020) ‘When people don’t realize their career desires: toward a theory of inaction’ in Academy of Management Review Vol. 45:2

[3] Frazier, L.D., and Hooker, K., (2006) ‘Possible selves in adult development: linking theory and research’ in Dunkel, C., Kerpelman, J. (Eds) Possible selves theory, research and applications. New York: Nova Science Publishers.


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