Career Anchors

Career AnchorsThe concept of career anchors evolved from research on adult development. Most of career theory focuses on selection of an occupation or on a classification of types of careers embedded in the occupational structure. Career anchor theory deals with the choices adults make when they are well into their careers and classifies adult careers in terms of the major motivational forces that drive them. Career anchor theory focuses on the “internal” career, the career as experi­enced by the career occupant.

Within any given occupational group, there will be people with different career anchors; hence, this is not a theory of occupational type. In fact, what is striking is that in any given occupation, one will find many different career anchor types pursuing that career. Career anchor theory focuses on how motivation, competence, and values gradually combine into a career self-concept that constrains and determines career choices throughout adult life. People with different career anchors desire different kinds of work settings, are motivated by different kinds of incentives and rewards, and are vulnerable to different kinds of career mismanagement.

Origin of the Concept of Career Anchors

The basic research leading to the concept of career anchors was begun for an entirely different purpose. In the mid-1950s, there was considerable concern over corporate indoctrination of new employees, best articulated by William H. Whyte’s 1956 book The Organization Man. In the aftermath of the Korean conflict, the concept of “brainwashing” entered the English vocabulary, and a concern developed that corporate socialization practices were uncomfortably close to the “coercive persuasion” that had been observed in Korean POW camps and in Chinese Communist prisons on the mainland.

General Electric’s (GE) management development center at Crotonville, New York, was boldly identified as the GE “Indoctrination Center.” IBM was not only engaging in coercive “culture-building” activities, such as requiring all sales trainees to sing songs together glorifying IBM, but explicitly indoctrinated management trainees by first asking trainees to analyze cases and then give the “correct” IBM solution, grading each trainee on how closely he or she came to that solution, then sending the grades back to the boss who had sponsored the trainee.

Career research at that time was primarily concerned with selection and the prediction of occupational success from aptitude and personnel tests of various sorts. Major research projects undertaken within Exxon, the Bell Telephone System, and GE attempted to locate the personal factors that would predict career success, usually measured by rank and salary achieved within a corporate structure. Because the research was primarily done by a few large corporations, much was learned about careers in those corporations, but little was learned about the variety of careers that people were pursuing outside of large organizations. To that end, one had to start with alumni samples and follow people longitudinally.

The research that led to career anchors was originally designed to study the process of corporate socialization and indoctrination. To this end, three panels of Sloan School master’s degree students (15 in 1961, 15 in 1962, and 14 in 1963) were formed. Students were randomly selected, to ensure that a broad range of careers would be tapped, and invited into the study conducted by Edgar H. Schein. Students were interviewed about their past educational and vocational histories and were given a battery of self-concept, attitude, and values questionnaires. Prior research had shown that faculty attitudes and values differed from managerial attitudes on a number of important dimensions. Students started out closer to the faculty attitudes. It seemed reasonable to assume, therefore, that student attitudes would shift away from business attitudes while they were in school but would show evidence of indoctrination during the early years of corporate life.

To test this assumption, each alumnus (all were men in the early 1960s) was reinterviewed and tested 12 months later. Each was asked to identify his boss and peers, permitting the researchers to send him the same attitude survey to determine whether the alumnus had moved toward the attitudes of his boss and peers during that first year. The survey results failed to reveal any consistent pattern. Some people did become more business oriented, but others either showed no change or, in a few cases, showed movement away from business attitudes.

On the other hand, the interview results revealed that the transition from school to industry was difficult, often disappointing, and fraught with “reality shock.” Alumni were not only learning what life in industry was really like but also, more important, were discovering some things about themselves that they did not realize while at school. Whereas every single person had indicated in his first-year interview that he wanted to be a “captain of industry” and “climb the corporate ladder,” many alumni said they realized within a year or two that such a traditional managerial career was not what they wanted at all.

The important career process that was going on in this early stage of the career was not indoctrination, but learning—the organization was learning about its new employee, and the new employee was not only learning about the organization but also, more important, about himself. This learning was still going on when the alumni were resurveyed 5 years out, but a new pattern of results showed up when the sample was reinterviewed 10 years out. The interviews were structured to get each person to review the major steps of his education and work life. For each event mentioned, the question of “Why did that happen?” was asked. What emerged from these interview accounts was that the “external-career” events might be all over the map but the reasons for them happening were highly patterned. It became clear that while a person was making many different kinds of career moves, there was a growing logic in what the person was looking for and a growing self-concept based on initial motivation and actual early job experiences. In other words, in the “internal career,” one could see patterns that could not be inferred from educational and job decisions. The focus of the research then became the dynamics of the internal career as it evolves in adults during the first decade or so of their external careers.

These dynamics revolve around the kinds of questions that each alumnus faced: (a) What are my talents, skills, and areas of competence? (b) What are my main motives, needs, drives, and goals in life? What do I want or not want, either because I have never wanted it or because I have realized after some work experience that I no longer want it? (c) What are my values—the main criteria by which I judge what I am doing? Am I in an organization or job that is congruent with my values? How good or bad do I feel about what I am doing in my work life? How proud or ashamed am I of my work and career? (d) If I am offered a promotion, a job move to another department or another city, should I take the offer or not? (e) If I am laid off or decide to resign, what should I do next?

The Concept of Career Anchors

The patterns of answers to the above questions had the character of becoming a kind of guidance system that informed career choices. Career occupants found themselves seeking or avoiding certain kinds of job situations, and if the current job context did not fulfill the desired expectations, the guidance system functioned to “pull the person back to something that felt more congruent.” Job choices that did not work were followed by feelings of “being pulled back into a safe harbor.” These and other images reported by the alumni led to the concept of the career anchor.

Formally defined, a career anchor is the pattern of self-perceived areas of competence, motives, and values that guide and constrain career choices. The emphasis is on self-perception, though such self-perception is built on the 10 years or more of job experiences that the person has up to that point. Younger people who have not had much work experience will, by definition, have no career anchor. They will not have obtained enough feedback to know what their competences, motives, and values really are.

Types of Career Anchors

The interviews revealed a surprising diversity in what people really wanted out of their careers, but within this diversity, some clear patterns emerged that were sorted into the eight types that will be described below. In extensive further research reported by Schein in 1985 and in 1993, the eight types have been observed in all kinds of occupations, are equally applicable to men and women, and have been found in other cultures.

Anchor 1: Technical/Functional Competence

Some people discover as their careers unfold that they have both a strong talent and high motivation for a particular kind of work. What really “turns them on” is the exercise of their talents and the satisfaction of knowing that they are experts. These are the people we think of as “craftsmen,” “professionals,” and “experts.”

This anchor occurs in all kinds of work. For example, an engineer may discover that he or she is very good at design; a salesperson may find real selling talent and desire; a manufacturing manager may encounter greater and greater pleasure in running complex plants; a financial analyst may uncover talent and enjoyment in solving complex capital investment problems; a teacher may enjoy his or her growing expertise in the field; a police officer may find that he or she loves the technical side of gathering evidence, and so on.

These people build a sense of identity around the content of their work and the technical or functional areas in which they are succeeding, and they develop increasing skills in those areas. Although others might be more concerned about the context of the work, this type of person is more concerned about the intrinsic content of the work.

Technical/functional people want to be paid for their skill levels, often defined by education and work experience. A person with a doctorate wants a higher salary than someone with a master’s degree, regardless of actual accomplishments. These people are oriented toward external equity, meaning that they will compare their salaries with what others of the same skill level earn in other organizations. Even if they are the highest-paid people in their own organizations, they will feel that they are not being treated fairly if they are underpaid compared with those in similar positions in other organizations.

The specialist values the recognition of his or her professional peers more than uninformed rewards from members of management. In other words, a pat on the back from a supervisor who really does not understand what was accomplished is worth less than acknowledgment from a professional peer or even from a subordinate who knows exactly what was accomplished and how difficult it might have been. The most important form of recognition is to be given more challenging assignments in their specialties and to be given educational opportunities to become even more competent.

Anchor 2: General Managerial Competence

Some people discover as their careers progress that they really want to become general managers, that management per se interests them, that they have the range of competencies required to be a general manager, and that they have the ambition to rise to organizational levels in which they will be responsible for major policy decisions and in which their own efforts will make the difference between success and failure of the organization.

When they first enter organizations, most people have aspirations to get ahead in some general sense. Many of them talk explicitly of ambitions to rise to the top, but few have a realistic picture of what is actually required in the way of talents, motives, and values to do so. With experience, it becomes clearer that they need not only a high level of motivation to reach the top, and succeed as a general manager, but also a mixture of talents and skills in the following three basic areas.

Analytical Competence. An individual must have the ability to identify, analyze, synthesize, and solve problems under conditions of incomplete information and uncertainty. General managers constantly point out the importance of being able to decipher what is going on, to cut through a mass of possibly irrelevant detail to get to the heart of a matter, to judge the reliability and validity of information in the absence of clear verification opportunities, and to pose the problem or question in such a way that it can be worked on.

Interpersonal and Intergroup Competence. An individual must have the ability to influence, supervise, lead, handle, and control people and groups at all levels of the organization toward organizational goal achievement. General managers point out that this skill involves eliciting valid information from others, getting others to collaborate to achieve synergistic outcomes, motivating people to contribute what they know to the problem-solving process, clearly communicating the goals to be achieved, facilitating the decision-making process and decision implementation, monitoring progress, and instituting corrective action if necessary.

Emotional Competence. An individual must have (a) the capacity to be stimulated by emotional and interpersonal issues and crises rather than be exhausted or debilitated by them, (b) the capacity to bear high levels of responsibility without becoming paralyzed, and (c) the ability to exercise power and make difficult decisions without guilt or shame. These competencies must be exercised 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The essence of the general manager’s job is to absorb the emotional strains of uncertainty, interpersonal conflict, and high levels of responsibility. People with this anchor will measure the attractiveness of a work assignment in terms of its importance to the success of the organization, and they will identify strongly with the organization and its success or failure as a measure of how well they have done. In a sense, then, they are real “organization people,” whose identity rests managing an effective organization.

Managerially anchored people measure themselves by their income levels and expect to be very highly paid. They are oriented toward internal equity in that they want to be paid substantially more than people at the level below them and will be satisfied if that condition is met, even if someone at their own level in another company is earning more. They also want short-term rewards, such as bonuses for achieving organizational targets, and because they are identified with the organization, they are very responsive to benefits such as stock options that give them a sense of ownership and shared fate. Managerially anchored people prefer frequent promotions, based on merit, measured performance, and results, to positions of higher responsibility.

Anchor 3: Autonomy/Independence

Some people discover early in their working lives that their need to be on their own is more important than the actual content of what they do. They cannot stand to be bound by other people’s rules, procedures, working hours, dress codes, and other norms that almost invariably arise in any kind of organization. Regardless of what they work on, such people have an overriding need to do things in their own way, at their own pace, and according to their own standards. They find organizational life to be restrictive, irrational, and intrusive into their private lives; therefore, they often prefer to pursue more independent careers on their own terms or organizational jobs that provide maximum freedom, such as being a salesperson out in the field. If forced to make a choice between a present job that permits autonomy and a much better job that requires giving it up, the autonomy/independence-anchored person would stay in his or her present job.

Everyone has needs for certain levels of autonomy, and these needs vary during the course of life. For some people, however, such needs come to be overriding; they feel that they must be masters of their own ships at all times. Sometimes extreme autonomy needs result from high levels of education and professionalism, in which the educational process itself teaches the person to be totally self-reliant and responsible, as is the case for many doctors and professors. Sometimes such feelings are developed in childhood by child-rearing methods that put great emphasis on self-reliance and independent judgment.

People who begin to organize their careers around such needs gravitate toward autonomous professions, but every occupation has autonomous job possibilities within it. A lawyer or doctor can work for a big firm or open his or her own office; a police officer can become a private detective; a manager can open his or her own store or become an independent consultant. If interested in business or management, a person may go into consulting or teaching or end up in areas of work in which autonomy is relatively possible even in large organizations: research and development, field sales offices, data processing, market research, financial analysis, or the management of geographically remote units. If this kind of person does end up employed within an organization, he or she prefers clearly delineated, time-bounded kinds of work within his or her area of expertise. Contract or project work, whether part-time, full-time, or even temporary, is acceptable and often desirable.

Anchor 4: Security/Stability

Some people have an overriding need to organize their careers so that they feel safe and secure, so that future events are predictable, and so that they can relax in the knowledge that they have “made it.” Everyone needs some degree of security and stability throughout life. At certain life stages, financial security can become the overriding issue, such as when one is raising and educating a family or approaching retirement. However, for some people, security and stability are predominant throughout their careers, and these concerns guide and constrain all major career decisions. Security and stability come to be more important than the content of what they do.

Such people often seek jobs in organizations that provide job tenure, that have the reputation of avoiding layoffs, that have good retirement plans and benefit programs, that have the image of being strong and reliable, and that have a reward system based on seniority and loyalty. For this reason, government and civil service jobs are often attractive to these people, and they obtain some of their satisfaction from identifying with their organizations even if they do not have high-ranking or important jobs. Every occupation has security/stability-anchored members, who are often the stable element in that occupation.

Anchor 5: Entrepreneurial Creativity

Some people discover early in life that they have an overriding need to create new ventures of their own by developing new products or services, building new organizations through financial manipulation, or taking over existing businesses and reshaping them to their own specifications. Creativity in some form or other exists in all career anchor groups, but what distinguishes the entrepreneur is that creating a new venture of some sort is viewed as essential to the career and to self-fulfillment. Inventors or artists or researchers also depend heavily on creativity, but they usually do not become committed to building new ventures around their creations. The creative urge in this anchor group is specifically toward creating new organizations, products, or services that can be identified closely with the entrepreneur’s own efforts, that will survive on their own, and that will be economically successful. Making money is, then, one key measure of success.

Many people dream about forming their own busi­nesses and express those dreams at various stages of their careers. In some cases, these dreams express needs for autonomy—to get out on one’s own. The difference is that entrepreneurially anchored people typically begin to pursue such dreams relentlessly and early in life, often starting small moneymaking enterprises even during their school years. They find they have both the talent and an extraordinarily high level of motivation to prove to the world that they can succeed. Entrepreneurially anchored people often fail in their early efforts but keep searching for opportunities to try again and again. They are restless and continu­ally require new creative challenges.

For this group of people, ownership is ultimately the most important issue. Often they do not pay themselves very well, but they retain control of their organizations’ stock. If they develop new products, they want to own the patents. Entrepreneurs want to accu­mulate wealth, not so much for its own sake, but as a way of showing the world what they have accom­plished. Entrepreneurs are rather self-centered, seeking high personal visibility and public recognition. Often they display this quality by putting their own names on products or companies.

Anchor 6: Sense of Service, Dedication to a Cause

Some people enter occupations because of central values that they want to embody in their work and careers. They are oriented more toward these values than toward the actual talents or areas of competence involved. Their career decisions are based on the desire to improve the world in some fashion. People with this anchor are attracted to the helping professions, such as medicine, nursing, social work, teaching, and the ministry. However, dedication to a cause clearly also characterizes some people in business management and in organizational careers. Some examples include the human resource specialist who works on affirmative action programs, the labor lawyer intent on improving labor-management relations, the research scientist working on a new drug, the scientist working for environmental protection, and the manager who chooses to go into public service to improve some aspect of society in general. Values such as working with people, serving humanity, saving the environment, and helping one’s nation can be powerful anchors in one’s career.

Service-anchored people clearly want work that per­mits them to influence their employing organizations in the direction of their values. They want fair pay for their contributions and portable benefits, because they have no a priori organizational loyalty. More important than monetary rewards is a promotional system that recognizes the contribution of the service-anchored person and moves him or her into positions with more influence and the freedom to operate autonomously. Service-anchored people want recognition and support both from their professional peers and from their superiors; they want to feel as though their values are shared by higher levels of management. Like the technically/ functionally anchored, they would appreciate opportunities for more education, support for attendance at professional meetings, awards and prizes, and public acclaim for their accomplishments.

Anchor 7: Pure Challenge

Some people anchor their careers in the perception that they can conquer anything or anybody. They define success as overcoming impossible obstacles, solving unsolvable problems, and winning out over formidable opponents. As they progress, they seek ever-tougher challenges. For some, this takes the form of seeking jobs in which they face more and more difficult problems or competitive challenges. Above all else, they want to “win.”

Many salespeople, professional athletes, and even some general managers and entrepreneurs define their careers essentially as daily combat or competition in which winning is everything. The type of pay, promotion system, and forms of recognition are all subordinate to whether or not the job provides constant opportunities for self-tests.

Anchor 8: Lifestyle

At first glance, this concept seems like a contradic­tion in terms. People who organize their existences around lifestyle are, in one sense, saying that their careers are less important to them and therefore that they do not have a career anchor. These people belong in a discussion of career anchors, however, because a growing number of people who are highly motivated toward meaningful careers are, at the same time, finding themselves in situations in which their careers must be integrated with their total lifestyles.

This kind of situation has arisen for more and more people because of changing social values around independence; the growing number of women in full careers, which has led to many more dual-career families; the changing attitudes of employers toward giving less job security and more portability in benefits; and the growing number of families who cannot survive economically unless both spouses work. If people must manage their own careers and they have spouses with careers, it is inevitable that more and more people will think about designing their total life situations, not just their work.

An integration of career and lifestyle issues is itself evolving, and people with this kind of orientation want flexibility more than anything else. Unlike the autonomy-anchored person, who also wants flexibility, those with lifestyle anchors are quite willing to work for organizations, do a variety of kinds of work, and accept organizational rules and restrictions provided that the right options are available at the right time. Such options might include traveling or moving only at times when family situations permit, part-time work if life concerns require it, sabbaticals, paternity and maternity leaves, day care options (which are becoming especially relevant for the growing population of dual-career couples and single parents), flexible working hours, work at home during normal working hours, and so on. Lifestyle-anchored people look more for an organizational attitude than a specific program, an attitude that reflects respect for personal and family concerns and makes genuine renegotiation of the psychological contract possible.

Practical Implications

All career occupants should recognize their career anchors in order to make better choices about career moves. If individuals do not know their anchors, they are very vulnerable to being given assignments or promotions that do not fit their self-images at all, leading to unproductive and stressful work situations. By analyzing their own career histories and the reasons for the choices they have made in the past, they can identify what is important to them and use that knowledge in making better career choices.

Most people will find that if they reflect carefully on the decisions they have made that they fit into one of the anchor categories. If more than one anchor seems to fit, the person should examine possible situations that might require a choice and think about what he or she would do if forced to make a choice.

In summary, career anchors are a way of under­standing the dynamics of the internal career in adult­hood. Career anchors form from experience, and once an individual has developed a self-image around his or her competencies, motives, and values, the anchor then guides and constrains the rest of that person’s adult career and life. Career anchors can change if a person encounters dramatically new experiences, but for most people, once they have formed a clear self-image, the tendency is to hold on that image.

See also:


  1. Holland, J. L. 1997. Making Vocational Choices. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Lifton, R. J. 1961. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. New York: Norton.
  3. Osipow, S. H. 1973. Theories of Career Development. 2d ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  4. Schein, E. H. 1961. Coercive Persuasion. New York: Norton.
  5. Schein, E. H. 1978. Career Dynamics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  6. Schein, E. H. Career Anchors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  7. Schein, E. H. “Individuals and Careers.” Pp. 155-171 in Handbook of Organizational Behavior, edited by J. W. Lorsch. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  8. Super, D. E. and Bohn, M. J. Jr. 1970. Occupational Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.