There are two primary views of role models. One, the traditional view, depicts role models as persons critical to an individual’s career development process. They often occupy socially important roles, such as leaders, managers, teachers, and coaches. They offer individuals a way to refine their developing identity by providing an image of someone they would like to become. Role models provide inspiration to individuals, and this motivates them to emulate aspects of their role models’ behavior or style. In this view, role models are exemplary figures offering essential clues to identity and career achievement.
A second, more recent view depicts role models as cognitive constructions devised by individuals to construct their ideal or “possible” selves based on their own developing needs and goals. Rather than focusing on the actions of a prominent person, however, the second view focuses on the perceptions of the individual. The individual is seen as piecing together a composite role model from attributes derived from a range of possibilities, both real and imagined. The emphasis in this view is on an active learning process from multiple role models, rather than a focus on selecting a particular exemplary person.
The term role model draws on two prominent theoretical constructs: the concept of role, and the tendency of individuals to identify with other people occupying important social positions, and the concept of modeling, the psychological matching of cognitive skills and patterns of behavior between a person and an observing individual. These two aspects of role models reflect two different theoretical traditions. The first, role identification theories, emphasizes the notion that individuals are attracted to people based on similarity. They may perceive similarity in terms of attitudes, behaviors, goals, or a desired status position, and they are motivated to enhance that similarity through observation and emulation. The second, social learning theories, suggests that individuals attend to models because they can be helpful in learning new tasks, skills, and norms. Identification theories place relatively more emphasis on the motivational and self-definitional aspects of role models, while modeling theories emphasize the learning aspects.
In discussing role models, it is important to distinguish them from two other types of career developmental relationships, behavioral models and mentors. Behavioral modeling focuses on matching specific actions and attitudes between an individual and a model. Typical examples of behavioral modeling in organizations involve supervisors or trainers illustrating specific task skills and performance goals and norms. The basis of the behavioral model relationship, then, is to facilitate individuals’ learning of specific tasks and skills by vicarious observation. The basis of a mentoring relationship is distinguished by an active interest by a mentor in advancing an individual’s career, and the mentor is understood to provide both career-related and psychosocial functions. In both cases, the focus of these constructs is on the actions of the superior other (a mentor or behavioral model) in helping to develop the individual.
The basis of the role model relationship, in contrast, is identification and social comparison processes. The individual makes other people role models by identifying with them or comparing upward to them: The focus is on this cognitive process rather than on direct action by the model. Indeed, interaction between the individual and his or her role models is not required. Individuals can be understood to have a “portfolio” of role models who can be observed for specific attributes and abilities, and the type of learning revolves around role expectations and self-concept definition rather than specific skills (as provided by behavioral models) or career advancement (as provided by mentors).
Given the lack of conceptual clarity surrounding the role model construct, it is not surprising that widely differing approaches have been taken in empirical research. Most research has examined children and adolescents identifying with parental role models. A secondary group of studies focuses on role models as a component in college students’ selection of careers, with a special focus on the need for, and frequent lack of, role models for women and minority students. Within organizations, role models have been primarily examined as one part of the socialization process and through a behavioral modeling lens. In terms of the latter, studies have found that social information conveyed through role models is related to increased learning of specific skills, higher goal setting, and increased performance levels.
Such research has not convincingly shown, however, whether role models are critical in career development and achievement, and how. While most empirical research has investigated the traditional understanding of role models outlined above, recent research has applied a more fine-grained qualitative approach to examining how individuals perceive and relate to their role models, especially as they are socialized to new organizational roles. Four key processes characterize the findings of this research. First, these studies find that individuals seek a variety of role models from whom they derive attributes and behaviors that can be helpful in their development. These role models may be predominantly “positive,” that is, illustrate behaviors or traits the individual wishes to emulate, or predominantly “negative,” that is, illustrate attributes the individual wishes to avoid. Second, rather than assume that individuals seek traditional role models, these studies tend to find that individuals differ to the extent that they seek a “global” role model, one from whom they can adopt a wide repertoire of attributes, versus seeking a “specific” role model who provides an exemplar of a relatively narrow trait.
Third, individuals use the role model attributes they observe as clues to creating their “ideal self”—the self they would like to become. Role models are particularly helpful in imagining this ideal self because by observing role models, individuals can provisionally try out different styles or behaviors to see which ones best suit their developing style. Finally, these processes must be understood as dependent on time. While attention paid to role models may be most intense during the early career stage, as individuals mature in their organizational career, they do not necessarily stop looking for role models. Rather, their role models tend to change, often from more positive to more negative and from more global to more specific.
The lack of conceptual clarity surrounding role models has produced a puzzling result: The idea of role models is widely and popularly known, but this wide knowledge masks a superficial understanding of how important role models actually are in career development. While research based on the traditional view suggests that having role models is better than not having them, the research lacks compelling links to dependent variables such as satisfaction, performance, and commitment. Research emphasizing role models as cognitive constructions might offer new hope for expanding our understanding of role models.
This research might provide the conceptual clarity that leads the way to new answers about this widely known yet paradoxically little understood concept.
- Gibson, D. E. 2004. “Role Models in Career Development: New Directions for Theory and Research.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 65:134-156.
- Ibarra, H. 1999. “Provisional Selves: Experimenting with Image and Identity in Professional Adaptation.” Administrative Science Quarterly 44:764-791.
- Krumboltz, J. D. 1996. “A Learning Theory of Career Counseling.” Pp. 55-80 in Handbook of Career Counseling Theory and Practice, edited by M. L. Savickas and W. B. Walsh. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
- Lockwood, P. and Kunda, Z. 1997. “Superstars and Me: Predicting the Impact of Role Models on the Self.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73:91-103.
- Speizer, J. J. 1981. “Role Models, Mentors, and Sponsors: The Elusive Concepts.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6:692-712.