Protean Career

Protean CareerThe protean career is a name given to describe a career that is driven by the individual and not by the organization. The concept of the protean career dates to 1976, when in the book Careers in Organizations, Douglas T. Hall noted an emerging type of career form that was less dependent upon the organization in terms of defining success or achieving certain outcomes.

The most central characteristic of the protean career is that it is a reflection and manifestation of the individual career actor. An individual with a protean career—or one who is protean—is thought to put self-fulfillment and psychological success above concerns and norms that would have their source outside of the individual. Psychological success is considered to be subjective success on the person’s “own terms” in contrast to “objective” success that might be measured or defined externally (e.g., by salary or promotions). While a protean career might be identified externally as a definable career pattern, the literature and this entry are primarily concerned with how the career is enacted, managed, defined, and evaluated from the individual’s subjective perspective.

Two broad dimensions of the protean career are

  • (1) a values-driven career orientation and
  • (2)self-directed career management.

Having a values-driven career orientation means that the career actor is defining career values on his or her own terms and assessing career success according to those terms. Self-directed career management occurs when a career actor actively manages his or her own career development according to personal values.

Because of the emphasis upon following one’s own career path, authors in the field have often associated the protean career with careers and lifestyles that are independent of a heavy commitment to or reliance upon an employing organization, or upon traditional status symbols such as income. Although protean career actors have been assumed to be more interested in learning and in achieving life balance and self-fulfillment, strictly speaking a person could independently (in a protean fashion) select traditional career contexts and value some of the symbols of success they portend, including income and advancement.

Historical and Cultural Context of the Protean Career

In understanding the original and evolving definition of the protean career, it is important to realize that it emerged at a time when organizations and their influence upon careers were relatively dominant as compared to today’s standards. Indeed, while individually driven careers have certainly always existed, thinking about career development as decisively independent of the organization was a novel approach in 1976.

Interest in the protean career concept grew in part due to the tumultuous organizational and business environment of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Because of downsizing, rapidly changing economic conditions, globalization, advances in technology (that allowed things such as telecommuting), increased emphasis upon contingent workers, and changing societal values around the importance of work and nonwork priorities, careers in fact became more individualized proactively or reactively on a wide scale.

A major shift relevant to the protean career involved a change in the “psychological contract” between employers and employees—simply put, what they expect of one another. A shift was seen from the traditional and “relational” contract that stressed loyalty on both sides of the contract to a “transactional” contract in which employers do not guarantee employment but provide opportunities, and employees do not promise loyalty but do commit to high performance. Some have opined that these broad trends are exaggerated; others suggest that emerging contracts mix aspects of both the traditional and relational perspectives. What is indisputable is that the psychological contract is perceived to have shifted in a way that encourages individual management of a career.

Research has shown that it takes many organizations and employees several years to recognize and cope with the changing psychological contract and to make associated changes in career development efforts. Such organizations start with stages characterized by trauma before they are later able to adapt to the new contract. A minority of organizations are able to leverage a learning culture into a less dramatic transition based upon continuous employee and organizational learning.

The rapid emergence of the “boundaryless” career concept in the 1990s may have benefited from as well as benefited the complementary protean career concept. While the boundaryless career crosses many different “boundaries” that are more negotiable than before, its primary characteristic is that it plays out across multiple organizational boundaries. The implication is that a protean career approach is more obvious and functional in such a setting. Many authors have treated the protean and boundaryless careers as almost synonymous with one another, and in fact the chief scholar behind the boundaryless career concept, Michael A. Arthur, has collaborated on several works with Hall intertwining the two concepts. But as the two theories mature into constructs, their distinctive nature and myriad combinations in theory and practice are becoming evident.

Some scholars have seen the protean career in a Western or Anglo-Saxon context partly because of its origin and development primarily in U.S. business schools and because of its obvious preoccupation with the individual. While research in several Western cultures has shown the protean career construct to be a reliable and robust predictor of career outcomes, it is underresearched in non-Western and collectivistic cultures and should not be used to draw conclusions in such contexts until further research is done.

Individual Differences and the Protean Career

Because research constructs for measuring protean career attitudes and approaches have only recently been developed, the empirical validation of protean career measures falls short of the theoretical maturity of the concept at this juncture. Some research has indicated that protean career attitudes are linked to a constellation of other career attitudes that might be considered “agentic” in nature. For example, strong correlations have been found between the protean career and a proactive personality, career self-efficacy, and a boundaryless mind-set. Furthermore, the protean career has been correlated with a “mastery” or learning orientation toward goals. This is in contrast with a performance orientation, which would entail a concern with success as defined by others rather than by oneself.

To this point, research has not definitively shown whether protean career identity and attitudes are associated with one’s age or gender. In terms of age, some have pointed out how acting in a protean fashion may be more challenging as one ages, especially if one has become accustomed to the traditional psychological contract wherein the organization assumes most of the responsibility for career development. But some studies have actually found a moderate positive relationship between aging and protean attitudes, whereas other research suggests that a protean orientation to the career is consistent across age groups.

Career Development and the Protean Career

Rationale for Developing a Protean Career Approach

Addressing career development begs the question of “why?” Why develop people to be more protean? It has been assumed in the literature that the organizational environment is less predictable, much more fluid, and less forgiving than in the past. Within such an environment it is further assumed that a more self-directed approach to the career is advantageous for purposes of adaptability and for enhancing the likelihood of subjective career success. Other presumed benefits of a protean approach to the career are that it will enable career actors to adjust to change better, which will benefit organizations as well as employees. Limited research has suggested that protean career actors do in fact adapt more quickly to organizational change and unemployment.

Jon P. Briscoe and Hall have argued that for a protean career approach to reap its ultimate benefit for the career actor, both a values-driven career orientation and self-directed career management are necessary. They argue that one who is high only in a values-driven orientation will be rigid and one who is high only in self-directed career management will be able to drive and react to career changes but not ultimately be grounded. Obviously, being low in both is problematic, but individuals who are high in both protean dimensions are expected to be more transformative in terms of their career and potentially able to offer more transformational skills to their organizations as well.

As the “new” career has gained recognition in academic and practitioner circles alike, some organizations have viewed protean and boundaryless career forms with suspicion. In such organizations, the suspicion seems to be that protean or boundaryless employees may be less loyal and committed. Interestingly, several emerging studies suggest that this is not necessarily true. Some studies have suggested that protean employees become committed to their organization affectively (“I want to remain in the organization”) and normatively (“I should remain in the organization) for the same reasons as other employees. There is some evidence that protean employees are less likely to remain in the organization simply for economic advantages. Research suggests that employees prefer cultures that allow for innovation, independence, and value expression.

Skills Related to the Protean Career

Hall has proposed two broad skills or “metacompetencies” that relate to the protean career—identity (self-awareness) and adaptability. He refers to these as metacompetencies in that they allow the career actor to “learn how to learn.” Identity awareness and understanding are seen as key to the values-driven nature of the career and to having a secure personal base in which to ground oneself and from which to experiment based upon changing external conditions. Adaptability involves the ability to change career and work behaviors in a way that allows one to succeed in a variety of potential contexts without the constant need for externally driven career development.

With both identity and adaptability skills, ongoing reflection is seen as a requisite “fuel” that challenges and develops the individual’s identity, values, assumptions, and skills across the course of his or her career. Thus reflection itself might be considered a requisite skill in the protean career.

Implications for Career Development

Broadly speaking, career development practices that help individuals increase their identity awareness, adaptability, and reflection skills will enhance their protean attitudes and identity. A large barrier to self-development with respect to the protean career is the inability to go beyond adaptation to career challenges and step back to reflect upon identity, career assumptions, and working definitions of success. Research has suggested that such “double-loop” reflection on both identity and adaptability is relatively uncommon and thus represents a prime target for the focus of career development. Because double-loop learning is apparently not natural for many people, especially in areas that are taken for granted such as identity and values, this is an area that might require outside intervention to stimulate many individuals to address it.

The current dynamic organizational environment is rich in its ability to provide a variety of experiences from which the individual could “learn to learn” and in the process enhance the metacompetencies of identity and adaptability. In this sense, development opportunities abound. For individuals this implies trying to target and obtain experiences that enhance identity, adaptability, and reflection skills. The implications for organizations wishing to assist in career development is similar, except that it is expedient to ensure that the individual is a strong, independent influence upon the process.

Philip H. Mirvis and Hall have conceived of the protean career as a series of learning cycles. Through such a lens, the learning cycle becomes the key frame through which individuals and those interested in their development can attempt to leverage advances in career insights and skills.

Beyond skills in reflection and developmental experiences themselves, relationships are a major vehicle for the career development of the protean career actor. As outlined by Kathy Kram, relationships can provide learning to the career actor as well as emotional and developmental support. Such benefits allow for growth and reflection in both adaptability and identity. A paradox in the new career environment, however, is that although some of one’s most developmentally oriented relationships are at work, these relationships are vulnerable to the volatile forces of business. Thus it behooves the career actor to develop a rich network of relationships beyond his or her contemporary work environment.

As of this writing, the protean career concept is mature theoretically but in its adolescence empirically. It has received wide acceptance as a template for understanding the “new” career. Its limitation empirically may be in part due to the fact that suitable research constructs have until recently lagged behind theory. In addition, the protean concept has been used at times prescriptively in addition to descriptively. This may have slowed efforts to understand it through a more rigorous perspective. Nevertheless, recent research findings indicate that the protean career can be measured in a reliable way, and further that it seems to impact career performance in the directions it has been postulated to. The next logical step is for practitioners and academics to better understand how such an approach might be best developed and whether it will be efficacious across cultures.

See also:


  1. Briscoe, J. P. and Hall, D. T. Forthcoming. “The Interplay of the Protean and Boundaryless Careers: Combinations and Implications.” Journal of Vocational Behavior.
  2. Briscoe, J. P., Hall, D. T. and DeMuth, R. L. F. Forthcoming. “Protean and Boundaryless Careers: An Empirical Exploration.” Journal of Vocational Behavior.
  3. Hall, D. T. 1976. Careers in Organizations. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.
  4. Hall, D. T. 2002. Careers in and out of Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  5. Hall, D. T. and Associates. 1996. The Career Is Dead—Long Live the Career: A Relational Approach to Careers, edited by D. T. Hall. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  6. Hall, D. T., Briscoe, J. P. and Kram, K. E. 1997. “Identity, Values, and the Protean Career.” Pp. 321-335 in Creating Tomorrow’s Organizations, edited by C. L. Cooper and S. E. Jackson. London, England: John Wiley & Sons.
  7. Hall, D. T. and Mirvis, P. H. 1995. “The New Career Contract: Developing the Whole Person at Midlife and Beyond.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 47:269-289.
  8. Hall, D. T. and Moss, J. E. 1998. “The New Protean Career Contract: Helping Organizations and Employees Adapt.” Organizational Dynamics 28(2):22-37.
  9. Kram, K. E. 1996. “A Relational Approach to Career Development.” Pp. 132-157 in The Career is Dead—Long Live the Career: A Relational Approach to Careers, edited by D. T. Hall. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.