Awareness has been defined as a relatively complete and accurate perception of individuals’ qualities and the characteristics of their environments. It can be of two types: self-awareness and environment awareness. Self-awareness refers to the realistic and accurate perception of one’s interests, values, skills, limitations, and lifestyle preferences. Environment awareness has been characterized as the accurate and realistic perception of opportunities, constraints, and challenges relevant to the individual’s work and family environment. The two types of awareness are important for successful career development and career decision making.
Both self-awareness and environment awareness are closely interlinked and share a variety of common stimuli that trigger the process of self-exploration and environment exploration. For example, self-assessments and environment assessments are triggered when individuals experience greater ambiguity about environmental demands, such as those brought on by organizational or job changes or by other evolutionary life changes. Furthermore, the two types of assessment have been identified as important components of the self-regulation process that enable individuals to achieve their personal, organizational, and career goals. In this respect, these assessments may be driven by individuals’ curiosity, self-determination, and other volitional processes. Finally, there are a number of barriers to effective exploratory behavior common to both self-assessments and environment assessments. Hence, to get a true picture of the role of environment awareness in career development, it is important to first discuss the relationship between self-awareness and environment awareness.
Relationship between Self-Awareness and Environment Awareness
It has been suggested that there is a reciprocal relationship between self-awareness and environment awareness. For example, the more individuals understand themselves, the more likely it is that certain insights about jobs, organizations, or occupations will become relevant to them. Similarly, the greater the amount of information gathered about the different facets of one’s work environment, the greater the likelihood of its triggering insights about one’s values, lifestyle preferences, and personal aspirations. It has been acknowledged that the process of gaining self-insight can often be fragmented and that it may be advisable to engage in environmental exploration before the task of self-analysis can be deemed complete.
Furthermore, it is believed that self-exploratory activities influence the direction of environment exploration, because individuals’ careers are embedded in the larger context of jobs, organizations, and occupations. Self-awareness provides the framework for engaging in environment exploration. Thus, individuals’ awareness of interests, values, abilities, and lifestyle preferences guides their search for information regarding potential occupations, organizations, and jobs.
Importance of Environment Awareness in Career Decision Making and Career Development
Awareness plays a central role in numerous theories of career decision making, career development, and career management. The study of both self-awareness and environment awareness is rooted in the concept of career exploration. Career exploration has been defined as the collection and analysis of information on a variety of career-related issues. Career exploration is oriented toward providing information about oneself, such as values, interests and talents, as well as providing information about different aspects of one’s environment, such as occupations, jobs, organizations, and families. Career exploration is oriented toward helping individuals develop a greater awareness of themselves and their environment so they can establish realistic career goals and be prepared for career changes and disruptions whenever they occur. The need to be prepared for and adapt to rapidly changing work conditions is especially critical in managing a “boundaryless” career.
It has been noted that individual careers are increasingly characterized by a variety of transitions, such as involuntary job losses, lateral movement within and across organizational boundaries, and career interruptions. Furthermore, scholars have acknowledged that individual careers are no longer confined or “bounded” to a single organization and instead are characterized by membership and experiences that span across organizational, functional, and job boundaries—hallmarks of a boundaryless career.
Just as the nature of careers has undergone a fundamental paradigm shift, so have the criteria that define career development and success. It has been argued that career development and success in such a competitive, unstable, and volatile work environment calls for increased levels of awareness and skills. Researchers have emphasized that individuals need to continually learn about themselves and their environments and expand their personal identities to succeed in today’s rapidly changing workplaces. It has been shown that individuals oriented toward learning are likely to seek additional career-relevant information that helps them become aware of their developmental needs, engage in organizationally sponsored developmental activities, and avoid becoming plateaued in their jobs.
Other researchers have investigated the role of environment awareness in terms of the “knowing why” competencies that individuals need to possess for effective career decision making and management. “Knowing why” competencies refer to individuals’ motivational energy for understanding themselves, exploring different possibilities, and adapting to constantly changing work conditions. These competencies have been found to be associated with perceived career success and individuals’ beliefs that they are valuable to their employers.
Awareness has also been identified as a critical component of effective career decision making and career management. Effective career decisions are preceded by thorough exploration of oneself and various facets of one’s environment, which is reflected in self-awareness and environment awareness. Likewise, the literature on career indecision suggests that a lack of self-awareness and environment awareness may lead to a state of indecision.
The underlying assumption in career decision-making and development theories has been that the better people understand themselves and their work environments, the more likely they are to make career decisions that are compatible with their needs, values, interests, and talents, that is, decisions that reflect a high level of person-job fit. In other words, people need to be cognizant of their abilities, values, and beliefs as well as the demands, opportunities, and constraints of their environments—the dimensions of self-awareness and environment awareness—to achieve a better fit between themselves and their work environments. Research has also borne out the view that individuals, over the course of their various employment experiences, try to seek out jobs that are compatible with their interests, values, and abilities, that is, jobs that reflect good person-environment fit. Compatibility between the person and the work environment has important implications for individuals’ career development. For instance, person-environment fit has been found to be positively associated with job satisfaction, organizational tenure, and career success.
In sum, environment awareness plays a critical role in helping individuals make optimum career decisions and successfully develop and manage their career plans. The next section highlights various facets of one’s environment that are particularly important for environmental exploration.
Environment Facets Relevant for Exploration
Many facets of an individual’s environment need to be explored and understood to develop a comprehensive sense of environment awareness. The specific aspects of the environment that need to be explored depend on individuals’ particular life situations, the career development tasks they need to address, and their salient life roles. Combinations of these factors determine the extent of exploration engaged in and the types of resources that will be helpful in building individuals’ environment awareness. In addition, it has been noted that self-insight is critical in directing this exploratory behavior. Unless individuals have sufficient self-insight and ask themselves the right questions, they will not be effective in utilizing various environmental resources to gain the requisite environment awareness.
The literature on career development and career management has identified four facets of an individual’s environment as being particularly important for environmental exploration and building environment awareness: occupations, organizations, jobs, and families. These facets are closely interlinked, and learning about one dimension often leads to insights about other dimensions. However, not all facets of one’s environment need to be explored to the same degree; the relevance of a facet depends on the type of career decision that the individual has to make. For example, an individual contemplating a midcareer change will need to explore various organizations as well as alternative occupational fields. The following section describes different aspects of an individual’s environment and their relevance for enhancing environment awareness.
Scholars have defined an occupation as a group of similar jobs found in several organizations. These jobs share a certain set of unique requirements and rewards that serve to distinguish them from other jobs in other occupations. To explore an occupational environment, it is important to understand the nature of tasks and activities that are characteristic of a particular occupation as well as the ability and training requirements necessary to perform those tasks. In addition to task differences, occupations differ in the types of rewards and job security they offer and in the physical and social settings they provide.
Two features of occupational exploration that merit special examination are the occupation’s time demands and work-related stresses and strains. Understanding the nature of these occupational demands and stresses has important implications for individuals’ lifestyle preferences. An impressive amount of research shows how extensive time commitment to work can interfere with individuals’ abilities to meet the demands and obligations of their other life roles. Similarly, research has shown that extensive work-related stress can produce conflicts between individuals’ work and family roles and impair their well-being.
Understanding various facets of an occupational environment also has implications for individuals’ self-exploration. That is, individuals need to be aware of their abilities, interests, and values in order to explore different aspects of an occupation and make appropriate occupational choices. Most psychologically oriented theories of occupational choice share a common assumption that people prefer and choose occupations that are compatible with their self-concepts. In other words, it is believed that individuals, consciously or unconsciously, choose occupations that match their skills, abilities, needs, values, and talents. The same view holds for individuals seeking to explore various facets of their jobs. The following section describes environmental exploration as it relates to a job context.
Over the course of various employment experiences, individuals “gravitate” toward jobs that are compatible with their interests, values, and abilities. This concept of person-job fit also guides individuals’ search for information regarding various facets of their job environments. Seeking information about occupations entails learning about the various tasks and activities that constitute that occupational field. Hence, in their pursuit to learn more about various occupational fields, individuals also end up learning a great deal about particular features of specific jobs. For example, in understanding the ability and training requirements for different occupations, an individual gets a general idea about what the requirements are for a particular job within an occupation. However, occupational exploration cannot and should not preclude job exploration.
Jobs within the same occupation may vary substantially from one organization to the other in time demands, financial rewards, job security, and physical and social settings. Jobs may also vary between two units within the same organization, particularly in terms of mobility prospects and autonomy in decision making. Hence, a thorough job exploration entails learning about all these features of the job environment as well as understanding how they fit in with one’s lifestyle preferences.
Jobs are embedded not only in occupations but also in organizations. In reality, exploration of jobs and organizations cannot be independent of one another. A thorough search for information about a particular job reveals important features of the organizational environment just as a search for information about an organization inevitably provides information about specific jobs in the organization. The next section discusses how exploration of an organization can affect one’s environment awareness.
Individuals undertaking exploration of an organization as a potential employer are also, consciously or unconsciously, driven by a desire to achieve a fit with their goals and values. The two prominent models of organizational choice, expectancy theory and unprogrammed decision making, emphasize that individuals choose jobs in organizations that will help them satisfy their important values.
An individual exploring an organization typically seeks information about the organization’s job opportunities, culture, strategy, administrative practices, and financial performance as well as different pay and benefits practices. In exploring various facets of an organization, an individual often develops expectations about the organization’s capacity to provide valued outcomes. The accuracy of these expectations can have a profound influence on that person’s job experiences, job satisfaction, and, ultimately, the decision to continue with or leave his or her employer.
Exploration Related to the Family Environment
Regardless of the extensiveness of individuals’ exploration of their work environments, effective environment exploration involves paying attention to one’s family environment as well. The literature on both identity formation and career development has emphasized the important role that family relationships play in facilitating career exploration and development. In addition, organizational scholars widely accept the view that individuals’ work and nonwork lives are closely and inextricably intertwined. They also recognize that individuals’ career decisions are strongly influenced by their family roles, demands, and obligations. Hence, to develop an accurate awareness of one’s total environment, it is important to consider and understand the members of one’s family: their emotional and financial needs, their career aspirations, and their desired lifestyles.
Tools and Techniques That Promote Effective Environment Exploration
There are a variety of resources available that facilitate the gathering of information about various facets of one’s work environment. Some of the commonly recommended sources of information include industry profiles and summaries, such as those available in standard industrial classification (SIC) guides, organizations’ annual reports, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, and Occupational Information Network (O*Net). Additional resources are available through career information centers housed in state public libraries. Individuals are also increasingly turning to the World Wide Web in their pursuit of information regarding various aspects of the work environment.
In addition to the above resources, one’s family, friends, and former coworkers employed in different organizations can be sources of information regarding specific occupations, organizations, and jobs. Last but not least, individuals’ mentors play vital roles in providing not only career-relevant information but also feedback, guidance, and support—which can all serve to enhance individuals’ levels of environment awareness.
Extensive exploration does not always produce an enhanced awareness of one’s environment. The obstacles to gaining an accurate insight into the various facets of one’s environment are very similar to the ones encountered in the process of self-exploration and self-assessment. For example, anxiety, fear, and defensiveness over the exploratory activity can prevent a person from obtaining the right type of information and accurately and constructively processing it. Similarly, interventions that are useful for overcoming the barriers to self-exploration can also help overcome obstacles to successful environment exploration.
In sum, environment awareness in conjunction with self-exploration plays an important role in helping individuals make appropriate career choices and manage their careers. Self-assessments help individuals understand the nature of their preferred work environments, and effective environment assessments help individuals understand the types of jobs, organizations, and occupations that are compatible with their interests, talents, and lifestyle preferences. Both types of awareness are important for individuals’ career development and progress.
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