Career Success

Career SuccessCareer success can be defined as the positive material and psychological outcomes resulting from one’s work-related activities and experiences. This definition reflects both objective and subjective aspects of career success. Career success is important because it reflects an overall evaluation of the individual’s career: the ultimate outcome of career development. Theoretical explanations of career success come from a range of social-science disciplines, including psychology, social psychology, organizational behavior, sociology, and economics. Numerous empirical studies have been conducted, although the primary focus of most studies is on the careers of managerial, professional, and technical workers employed in for-profit organizations. Individual characteristics, work and career-related decisions and behaviors, interpersonal processes, and organizational context and social structural characteristics have all been shown to influence individuals’ career success.

Objective career success reflects career accomplishments that are objectively observable by others and can be measured in terms of the individual’s level of income as well as the individual’s promotion history, hierarchical level in the organization, or job title. Because these outcomes can be seen as rewards that are external to the work itself, they have sometimes been referred to as extrinsic career success indicators. However, these factors may also be associated with the psychological experience of intrinsic reward, since they reflect an individual’s level of skill and mastery within a chosen field as well as the level of autonomy and responsibility that person exercises in the work role. Thus, objective career success is the preferred term.

Traditionally, the concept of career has been applied to managerial, technical, and professional occupations within large, bureaucratic organizations. This type of employment situation offers relatively clear career paths and a view of career advancement as vertical, linear, and bounded by membership in a single organization. The concept of objective career success seems to rely on the assumptions of this model of career progress. Many scholars have come to question the accuracy of this model for most workers, due to changes in the economy and in the strategies and structures of organizations in the last two decades as well as changes in the goals and expectations of individuals. Subjective career success reflects the individual’s personal feelings of satisfaction with his or her career path, career progress, or career outcomes. The concept of subjective career success is necessary because the use of only objective indicators may provide an overly narrow conceptualization of career success. Objective indicators assume that all workers place primary value on vertical career progress and are employed in large hierarchical organizations that have clear vertical career paths. The subjective career success conceptualization recognizes that a number of intrinsic career outcomes, which are not necessarily observable to others, may also be important to the individual. Intrinsic career outcomes may include, for example, interesting and meaningful work, individual autonomy, tolerable stress levels, and work with enjoyable colleagues. Extrinsic outcomes that are less tangible and observable than the objective indicators, such as job security or future employability, may also enter into one’s subjective evaluation of career success. In addition, each individual may have a unique set of life goals, interests, and values that leads him or her to value specific extrinsic and intrinsic career outcomes differently when assessing personal satisfaction with a career.

Theories of Career Success

A number of theories have been used to provide an explanation of career success. These theories explain why or how specific variables are associated with career success and provide an account of the processes involved in acquiring higher levels of salary, more promotions, or greater satisfaction from one’s career. The source discipline for these theories ranges across areas of psychology and social psychology, organizational behavior, and sociology and economics and focuses on individual traits and abilities, interpersonal processes, and the constraints and opportunities posed by social structures.

Psychological Theories of Career Success

Individual skills and abilities, including cognitive ability, provide one of the most basic explanations of career success. The assumptions implicit in this approach are based on the rational/bureaucratic view of organizations. According to this view, the possession of particular skills and abilities leads to higher job performance, which is, in turn, rewarded by supervisors and the organization with higher pay, promotion, greater responsibility, and possibly more pleasant or interesting work. Much of the theoretical development in this area involves specification of the relevant skills or capabilities necessary for productive behavior in specific jobs or in managerial work located in an organizational setting.

Personality, need theories of motivation, and other individual-difference theories have also been applied to the topic of career success. The basic model relating these individual-difference approaches to career success assumes that these traits or predispositions are associated with behaviors that are appropriate or effective across a range of work situations or interact with a more narrow set of work situations or task demands to produce career success. Explanations focus on the relationship between a specific individual-difference variable and job performance, interpersonal behavior, or the nature of the individual’s emotional reactions to work and occupational demands. Some personality variables take a more interactionist perspective and explain career success through the tendency either to match oneself to the situation or, conversely, to alter the situation or select oneself into situations that will produce higher satisfaction, performance, and career outcomes.

Theories growing out of the area of vocational psychology and occupational choice are also relevant to the topic of career success. The focus of these theories is on congruence or fit between various work-related characteristics of the individual and the attributes of the work environment, including job, organizational, and occupational demands and rewards. Fit is assumed to produce individual job and career satisfaction and, through job performance and employment stability, career advancement. Theories of career management extend the earlier vocational perspectives to focus on ongoing career-related activities, such as setting career goals, developing career strategies, and adapting career goals and plans to changing circumstances. These activities, centered on the development of greater career self-insight and adaptation, are thought to ultimately result in greater career satisfaction and progress.

Social Psychological Theories of Career Success

A number of theoretical approaches focus directly on interpersonal behavior, social interaction, or personal relationships as a determinant of career success. Growing out of the life span development perspective, researchers have devoted considerable attention to the impact, function, processes, and problems of mentors in facilitating career success. Mentors are thought to fulfill important functions that help their proteges to develop a clear sense of identity and commitment to their work roles and practical help planning and managing their careers. Psychosocial mentoring involves acting as a role model, communicating acceptance and confirmation of the protege’s identity, counseling, and friendship. Career mentoring involves sponsoring the protege for challenging assignments, providing positive exposure and visibility, and coaching on work tasks and protection from politics. These activities help the protege succeed at work tasks, overcome barriers and challenges at work, gain promotions in the organization, and adapt to the psychological demands of the job and organization.

Theories based on politics at the interpersonal level focus on the types of influence tactics and impression management strategies used by individual employees. These tactics and strategies range from rational persuasion and bargaining to ingratiation and self-promotion. This approach argues that these interpersonal behaviors influence numerous career-related decisions that indirectly impact career success, including performance evaluations, job assignments, and access to developmental opportunities. Political behavior can also have a direct effect on promotion decisions, apparently through the creation of a sense of similarity and comfort among the key decision makers. Demographic similarity or homophily can also play a role in career success through the perception of similarity between the individual and his or her supervisor or other career decision makers. Gender and race are the two demographic markers typically examined.

Sociological Theories of Career Success

Social capital theory, growing out of the field of sociology, focuses on the ways that patterns of social relationships facilitate goal-directed action, which as applied here refers to the attainment of career success. The pattern of relationships or ties among “actors,” known as the social network, is viewed as a channel for information and influence flows. One assumption that underlies this approach, well-grounded in empirical findings, is that the social world is “clumpy,” with high rates of interaction and information sharing taking place within cliques but relatively little interaction taking place between them. Individuals are conceptualized as strategic actors who work to develop advantageous social network positions or structures for themselves. For example, centrality in a social network reflects the fact that one has many direct or indirect (for example, “friend of a friend”) relationships with other people in the network. Strong ties are intimate, frequent, mutual, and diffuse relationships with others, whereas weak ties reflect casual, infrequent, or narrowly defined relationships. A structural hole is defined as the absence of a tie between two contacts who are each linked to the focal individual. Structural position within the full social network, such as centrality, and structural characteristics of the individual’s personal social network, such as weak ties and structural holes, are thought to provide advantages because they connect or reach a diverse range of people in different social cliques with a minimum of time and effort invested on the part of the focal actor. Networks that provide access to a diverse range of information, support, or other social and material resources are thought to lead directly (through greater influence over career decision makers) or indirectly (through higher job performance) to higher career success.

Discrimination theory explains differential career outcomes for women and racial minorities. A stereotype is the application of generalizations about broad groups to individual members of that group. Discriminatory behavior is thought to be the result of decision making based on these stereotypes. Stereotypes regarding the ability, motivation, experience, work involvement and commitment, or similarity in values and attitudes work to the disadvantage of women and minorities when career decisions are made. Differences in the gender composition of occupations and organizational hierarchies may also create additional challenges for women and minorities.

Economic Theories of Career Success

Human capital theory, growing out of the field of economics, assumes that workers invest in their education and training in order to increase their productivity and thus their returns from the labor market. Education serves as a signal of individual productivity. Indicators such as work experience and organizational tenure serve as proxies for investments in training made by the individual, which should also influence productivity. Education may be most important as a determinant of selection and initial pay decisions upon organizational entry, while training and job experience are rewarded with pay increases and promotions once the individual has been hired by the organization.

Internal labor market and tournament theories focus on the opportunity structure of the organization as a determinant of career outcomes. Here, the focus is not on the individual, but on the social structure in which the individual finds himself or herself. Internal labor market theory focuses on factors such as the size, growth rate, and job vacancy rates of the organization, the presence and characteristics of promotion ladders, and characteristics of the incumbent’s job, such as skill level, function, or occupational orientation as determinants of individual promotions and pay increases. Tournament theory provides an explanation for certain aspects of internal wage structures and organizational promotion patterns. This theory argues that career advancement can be viewed as a series of single-elimination tournaments in which “players” compete with their coworkers for promotions or wage increases. Since players must win a given round to advance to subsequent tournaments, early career success, such as being promoted sooner than other members of one’s cohort, is seen as an important determinant of eventual career attainment. Early career success can also lead the organization to sponsor the individual for specialized training and developmental experiences, which gives the individual cumulative advantage in subsequent rounds. Relative performance ranking rather than absolute performance determines the winner of a tournament, and wage differentials across organizational levels are seen as “prizes” that motivate employee effort, possibly including efforts to sabotage other tournament competitors.

Empirical Research on Career Success

Individual Characteristics

Broadly conceived, this category encompasses all characteristics of individuals that have an impact on career success. Empirical research has examined individual difference variables, including cognitive ability, personality, and motivation; demographic variables, such as age, race, gender, and family structure; and acquired characteristics, such as skills and work experience. Some of these characteristics, such as gender and race, are biologically determined, although their impact on career success may have more to do with social processes than biology. Individual differences such as cognitive ability and personality are thought to have a biological or genetic substrate. They are viewed as relatively fixed by adulthood. Still other characteristics are learned or acquired, can change over time, and may be the outcome of specific decisions and choices on the part of the individual.

Cognitive ability or intelligence is defined as the person’s current capacity to perform mental tasks. Intelligence reflects how much information an individual is capable of processing and how quickly a person learns. Cognitive ability is consistently related to job performance across a broad range of jobs. The assumption that high job performance will lead to promotions underlies the theoretical relationship of cognitive ability to career success. Indeed, numerous studies have shown intelligence to be positively related to career achievement, especially extrinsic career success. However, intelligence may interact with other situational or personality variables to produce career success. For example, intelligence may be a more important predictor of job level for those who were less successful early in their careers. Presumably, those with early career success garnered advantages in terms of developmental experiences and social contacts that made their career success less dependent on their cognitive abilities. Likewise, intelligence has been found to predict the career success of individuals possessing MBAs only when combined with high conscientiousness, a personality trait associated with achievement motivation and dependability. Recently, promising developments have been made regarding the role of emotional intelligence at work, but not enough research has been conducted to draw a firm conclusion regarding the relationship between emotional intelligence and career success.

The basic model relating personality and motivation to career success assumes that these predispositions are associated with behaviors that are appropriate or effective across a range of work situations or that interact with a more narrow set of work situations, task demands, or organizational rewards to produce high job performance, career advancement, and satisfaction. Early research focused on motives, defined as an unfulfilled need that drives the intensity, direction, and persistence of behavior. A number of motivational variables, including career advancement motivation, motivation to manage, and need for power, were shown to positively relate to advancement in managerial careers. More recently, attention has shifted to personality traits, which are relatively stable predis­positions to think, feel, or behave in particular ways. Several of the “Big Five” personality dimensions have been identified as contributors to career success. Emotional Stability and Extraversion have shown the most consistently positive relationship, while Agreeableness is negatively related to career success. One study showed Openness to Experience to be pos­itively related to subjective career success, although a different study showed Openness to be negatively related to salary. Recent work has shown how personality traits that are more narrowly defined than the Big Five, such as proactive personality and self-monitoring, are associated with specific behaviors that, in turn, lead to career success. Proactive personality is defined as a predisposition to taking initiative and effect environmental change. Proactive personality is related to innovative work role behavior, political knowledge, and career planning and skill updating, which are, in turn, related to career success. High self-monitors, people who monitor and control their self-expression to match the requirements of the social situation, achieve higher extrinsic career success than do low self-monitors, apparently due to the fact that they initiate relationships with mentors and, over time, come to occupy strategically important positions in the social networks of their organizations.

Several demographic factors also show a relationship to career success. Age tends to be positively asso­ciated with the extrinsic aspects of career success. This appears to be due to the accumulation of training and work experience over time, although some evidence suggests that for women, age is less strongly associated with work experience but has a direct relationship with advancement. The rate of career advancement, however, appears to slow with age, leading to the phenomenon of the career plateau. For example, managers who are younger than the average age of other managers at their levels have the highest expectations of advancement and the highest ratings of “promotability,” while managers who are older than others at their levels have the lowest. Nonetheless, salary tends to increase continuously with age.

Race and gender differences in career success are also apparent. Although some evidence suggests that African Americans are more likely to be promoted to entry-level managerial positions, differences in ratings of promotion potential and differences in pay have been consistently found to be to the disadvantage of African Americans. Gender is also associated with career success, such that men have higher outcomes, especially with regard to salary and hierarchical level. Although gender is associated with a number of career-related choices, gender differences persist even when these differences are taken into account. In fact, it appears that gender interacts with many other factors discussed here such that these factors have different effects on the career success for men than for women. For example, women’s careers are less likely to benefit from moving between firms or from training, development, and work experience. One study found job-specific personality variables to be stronger predictors of career success for men, while career move decisions and occupational opportunity structures were more important determinants for women. Even the outcomes of promotion vary by gender such that women who earn the same number of promotions nonetheless find themselves at a lower hierarchical level. The effects of family structures on career success, such as having a spouse or a dependent, also appear to vary for men and women. Being single has a negative effect on success for both men and women. But for men, being a single parent has a negative effect, and having a spouse who works also has a negative effect. No such negative effects seem to apply for women.

Levels of education, training, and work experience have been consistently and positively related to individuals’ levels of career success, especially extrinsic success. The evidence suggests that educational level is not related to promotions within the firm but is related to managerial level and pay. The type of degree and even the quality of the institution granting the degree also appear to matter. Participation in on-the-job train­ing and development activities, on the other hand, is related to promotions. This is especially true for the participation of technical professionals in managerial development activities and their promotion to initial managerial levels. Employment gaps or the use of leaves of absence are negatively related to promotions.

Work and Career Behaviors

The number of hours worked per week is positively related to extrinsic career success, especially to pay. Job performance has also shown a consistent positive rela­tionship with extrinsic career success, especially for promotions taking place within a single firm. However, job performance appears to interact with age such that high job performance is related to ratings of “promotability” and promotions for younger (approximately under 50 years of age) but not older (over 50) workers. Race also appears to play a role, with some studies showing that supervisors are less likely to credit internal attributions (performance based on ability and effort rather than luck) to the performance of African Americans and that African Americans receive lower job performance and promotability ratings.

The choice an individual makes regarding occupa­tion, organization, or even a job can have an impact on that individual’s career success through the level of congruence such a decision produces. Considerable evidence shows that the degree of congruence or “fit” between the person and the job and between the person and the organizational environment is related positively to job satisfaction and negatively to turnover. More limited evidence demonstrates a positive effect of fit on intrinsic and extrinsic career outcomes, presumably due to higher work performance and similarity to peers and influential decision makers in the organization. For example, one study showed that person-organization value congruence is related to career satisfaction only when the level of perceived organizational support is low or the quality of the individual’s relationship with his or her supervisor is poor.

Several career self-management behaviors are also related to career success. Activities such as setting career goals and objectives, formulating career strate­gies and plans, and updating skills through formal or self-sponsored activities are positively related to intrinsic career success. Job relocation within the same company is frequently listed in the career histories of successful managers and is consistently related to extrinsic success. The effects of job changes across companies, or what economists call an external labor market strategy, appear to have a more complex relationship with extrinsic career success. For example, one study showed that White male MBA degree holders who had changed employers after receiving their degrees received higher compensation than those who had stayed with one employer, but the compensation advantage from changing employers was not experienced by female or minority MBAs. Company change may also be more advantageous for younger managerial workers early in their careers than for middle- and upper-level managers.

Interpersonal Processes

Interpersonal processes focus on the way specific social behaviors and relationships affect career success. For example, leader-member exchange, a construct that reflects the quality of an individual’s relationship with his or her supervisor, is related to objective and subjective career success. Impression management strategies are also related to extrinsic career outcomes. One study showed that a supervisor-focused strategy that makes use of ingratiation has a positive effect on advancement, whereas a job-focused strategy based on self-promotion has a negative effect on advancement.

The establishment of a relationship with a mentor, usually defined as a more senior manager in one’s own organization who is not a direct supervisor, has consistently been found to promote both the extrinsic and intrinsic career success of the mentored individual, or protege. Mentors engage in a range of activities either with or on behalf of their proteges. Career mentoring includes sponsorship, exposure and visibility, and coaching and protection, and psychosocial mentoring involves acting as a role model, communicating acceptance and confirmation of the protege, counseling, and friendship. Rather than the type of mentoring activity, the amount of career mentoring provided by the mentor appears to be more strongly related to the extrinsic career success of the protege, and both career and psychosocial mentoring have positive effects on career satisfaction, although perhaps for different reasons. Psychosocial mentoring, as a form of social support, may have direct effects on career satisfaction, while career mentoring may enhance one’s feelings of control over one’s career as well as extrinsic success, which, in turn, leads to greater career satisfaction. Employees may have more than one mentor; they can, in fact, maintain a constellation or network of career-supportive relationships throughout the organization. One study showed that employees with multiple supportive relationships at an organizational level higher than their own receive more career mentoring and experience greater extrinsic and intrinsic career success. Mentors at higher levels and in other organizational functions also provide greater access to organizational information and resources, which, in turn, has a positive effect on individuals’ careers, independent of the amount of direct career support they receive.

Social networks appear to be important both for securing desirable jobs and for moving up once employed by the organization. Generally, larger personal networks are better. For example, the number of professional memberships and personal contacts external to one’s organization has been found to be related to the organizational level or status of the job position obtained and income. Weak ties, which reflect people to whom we have only a limited or indirect relationship, are often the crucial source of information about new job opportunities. Weak ties reach higher-status people who help one to secure a higher-status job. One’s position in the informal social networks within the organization is also important to career success. Being central within the social network of the organization or subunit is related to subsequent promotion. However, maintaining a large number of ties to others requires considerable time and energy and can have a negative impact on one’s job performance, which can have a negative impact on career success. Personal networks rich in structural holes are an efficient way to enjoy the information and access benefits associated with a diverse set of contacts while minimizing the time investment. Several studies have shown that such networks are associated with greater career advancement. One study showed that structural holes are associated with a more diverse set of contacts throughout the organization, which, in turn, is associated with greater access to organizational information, resources, and career sponsorship. These social benefits are, in turn, associated with higher levels of extrinsic and intrinsic career success.

Social Structure and Context

It has often been assumed that individual career advancement is determined in part by a range of structural factors, such as industry, occupation, and characteristics of the organization. Our knowledge of the effects of these factors may be limited by the fact that they have rarely been the specific focus in studies of individual career success. But at this time, we must conclude that structural factors are only inconsistently related to career success. For example, the level of an individual’s career success, especially judged in terms of compensation, is influenced by the industry in which that individual works. However, the effect is inconsistent across studies, possibly due to differences in the populations sampled or differences in the coding and treatment of industry effects. The same can be said for the impact of organizational function on career success: Differences in salary or salary growth are often noted across categories, but little consistency is obvious in differences between specific functional categories. One exception may be for general managers, who often earn more than their counterparts in positions as functional managers or professional and technical workers. Even factors such as organizational size and growth rate show no consistent relationship with career success. While larger organizations are more likely to have internal promotion systems and “fast tracks” for managerial promotion, such internal systems are not, on average, related to the rate of career advancement.

See also:


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