Awareness is a central concept in career development. It has been defined as a relatively complete and accurate perception of individuals’ own qualities and the characteristics of their environment. The two types of awareness identified in the literature are self-awareness and environment awareness. Self-awareness refers to the realistic and accurate perception of one’s interests, values, skills, limitations, and lifestyle preferences. In its most basic form, self-awareness requires individuals to take the time to develop insights into themselves and assess what is meaningful to them in their lives. Both self-awareness and environment awareness are inarguably important for successful career decision making and career management. Different theorists have used different constructs to refer to self-awareness such as self-concept, self-image, vocational identity, and self-observation generalization.
Role of Self-Awareness in Career Development
All major career development models have attempted to explain how individuals obtain and utilize self-knowledge to make career choices and shape their career development. A fundamental assumption that has guided most, if not all, major theories of career development is that self-knowledge is essential
for making career progress and developing satisfying careers. Similarly, most of the models of career management subscribe to the notion that career success and satisfaction will most likely be achieved by individuals who develop insights into themselves and their work environments. Self-awareness also plays a critical role in self-management models. Simply put, self-management has been described as a process of influencing oneself. It encompasses self-assessment, self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and other related processes.
In order to fully appreciate the role of self-awareness in career development, it is important to first understand the nature of contemporary careers. There have been a number of environmental changes that have had a profound influence on the basic foundation of personal and career development. For example, it has been widely documented that the rapidly changing workplaces, combined with organizational, technological, and social transitions, have left few external benchmarks of effective career development and have fostered the trend toward self-managed careers.
Furthermore, with changes in the psychological contract and traditional organizational opportunity structures, changes in the meaning of career success, and greater awareness of the impact of family and lifestyle issues on one’s career, employees have been compelled to design their own personal and career development plans. This has been accompanied by limited assistance from organizations for the development and management of these career plans. In such rapidly changing and uncertain times, there has been an increased pressure on employees to develop a set of career competencies that would enable them to develop insights into themselves and their environment. Such career competencies are believed to be important in achieving career success and satisfaction.
Self-awareness is important for career development for reasons other than the ones identified above. Self-awareness, conceptualized as both a personality trait and a skill, has been argued to be critical in regulating individual performance and achieving managerial excellence. A thorough awareness of one’s interests, values, talents, and lifestyle preferences enables individuals to set appropriate career goals, develop appropriate career strategies, and regulate their behavior successfully.
Support for the notion that realistic career goals are likely based on accurate self-assessments and self-awareness comes from several studies on students and working professionals. Researchers have found that students who reported extensive self-awareness were more likely to develop satisfying and appropriate occupational goals than those who were relatively unaware of themselves. Similarly, self-awareness has been found to be an important factor that enabled individuals to develop realistic job expectations, attain higher levels of job satisfaction, and a greater degree of fit with their chosen work environments.
Research suggests that individuals can develop self-awareness by engaging in self-assessments and self-exploration. Employees at all organizational levels frequently make such self-assessments. For example, when individuals enter organizations, are transferred, or cope with organizational change, there is a pressing need to appraise, evaluate, and/or assess oneself.
Similarly, engaging in self-assessments may become even more important when individuals experience greater ambiguity about environmental demands such as those encountered during career transitions or experienced during personal or family crises. This does not mean that self-assessments are important only during times of dramatic change in people’s lives. Rather, it is equally important for individuals to be sensitive to changes in themselves even during less momentous periods in their lives. Such ongoing assessments of oneself, reflected in self-awareness, enables individuals to achieve their goals in an organization—whether the goals are basic survival, good performance, rapid advancement, or something else. It also enables them to be flexible enough to make career decisions that are more in tune with, and reflective of, their emerging selves.
Importance of Self-Exploration in Enhancing Self-Awareness
To develop an accurate and realistic awareness of oneself, it is important to engage in self-exploration. Engaging in self-exploration requires individuals to seek information about a variety of personal qualities, such as interests, values, talents, abilities, shortcomings, and any attitudes that are relevant to career decision making. Work is not the only significant role in people’s lives, and it is important to examine a variety of nonwork interests and values. Hence, self-exploration also requires individuals to understand what they want from their nonwork roles, what significant values, interests, and talents can be satisfied through nonwork pursuits, and what their lifestyle preferences are.
The first step in any self-exploratory activity is to collect data and information about one’s values, interests, abilities, and lifestyle preferences. There are a number of well-established techniques that are available to help individuals perform self-exploration. These techniques can be broadly categorized as individual assessment instruments, organization-sponsored self-exploration programs, and informal means of self-assessment.
Techniques for Self-Exploration
Individual assessment instruments, as the name suggests, help individuals gain a better understanding of their interests, values, personality factors, aptitudes, and lifestyle preferences. These instruments are intended to serve as a general guide to informed career decision making and are not meant to provide a conclusive answer to one’s career direction. Some of the most widely used individual assessment techniques are the Strong Interest Inventory, the Vocational Preference Inventory, the Self-Directed Search, the General Aptitude Test Battery, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Rokeach Value Survey, and the Life Style Inventory.
Some of the assessment tools such as the Strong Interest Inventory, the Vocational Preference Inventory, and the Self-Directed Search provide specific information on an individual’s pattern of interests that are suitable for certain occupation types. The other assessment tools identify general thinking and value patterns that are useful for career decision making. In general, the various interest inventories, aptitude tests, and personality and lifestyle measures offer helpful insights to individuals who are faced with the task of making an initial career choice or those who seek to change their career direction. These self-assessment tools are not intended to serve as a definitive guide to career selection.
In addition to the above individual assessment techniques, a variety of organization-sponsored self-exploration programs are also available. These programs are typically offered through career management or assistance centers. They offer individual self-assessment opportunities through career planning workshops, career workbooks, and assessment centers. Career planning workshops involve a structured group format in which participants interact with one another to formulate, share, and discuss personal information that leads to self-analysis and eventual self-awareness. Career workbooks are structured to accomplish the same objective as career planning workshops except that these workbooks are self-paced, self-directed, and designed to be completed by individuals themselves. Finally, assessment centers are used to provide feedback on individuals’ personality styles, strengths, and shortcomings. In addition to aiding self-awareness, this feedback can also be used to guide individuals’ career planning process.
Employees can also obtain self-information through other formal and informal feedback sources and mechanisms. Performance appraisals are one example of a formal feedback mechanism that can contribute to employees’ self-exploration process by providing them with information on their strengths and weaknesses. In situations when feedback is not spontaneously provided or is somewhat constrained, employees may solicit feedback or infer it from a variety of informal cues by engaging in active feedback-seeking behaviors. Active feedback-seeking is an important component of the self-assessment process. It is also an integral part of the self-regulation process in which individuals monitor the opinions and expectations of their superiors, peers, and subordinates.
In addition to the above self-exploration techniques, individuals can also engage in informal self-exploration activities such as writing a diary, analyzing their highs and lows in life, fantasizing about their ideal jobs, and conducting other exercises designed to provide self-insights.
Despite the availability of a variety of self-exploration instruments and programs, self-exploration is not always effective and does not always produce an enhanced and accurate self-awareness. The next section describes some of the challenges that accompany any type of self-assessment or self-exploration activity.
Accuracy of the Self-Assessment Process
It is widely agreed that accuracy in self-assessments is a desirable goal. However, the question that has confronted employees and researchers alike has been whether accuracy in self-assessment is an attainable goal. This is a particularly important area of inquiry because self-exploration entails using the self as the source of feedback. Some studies have shown that the self is the most available and trustworthy source of feedback, while others have shown that self-assessments are prone to a variety of errors and misjudgments. Recently, research has begun to address the reasons why individuals’ assessments of themselves might or might not be accurate and the ways in which these assessments may deviate from accuracy. There are a number of barriers to effective self-exploration that have been identified in the literature, and these obstacles are discussed next.
Barriers to Effective Self-Assessment
Because people live and work in environments that are changing and are also often complex and ambiguous, it is no surprise that inaccuracies in self-assessments occur. Inaccuracies in self-assessments have been shown to arise from three broad categories of problems that individuals face. The first one deals with the information problem and relates to either too much or too little information. Individuals’ environments may contain a surfeit of complex cues that need to be interpreted accurately. Faced with this abundance of cues, individuals’ perceptual processes may get constrained, which may distort their self-assessment accuracy and eventually their quality of awareness. To compound these problems, some environments contain cues that are ambiguous, which may lead to multiple interpretations for every cue. This might happen commonly in organizations that are undergoing a transition, causing them to give off ambiguous cues regarding what is appropriate and expected behavior. Self-assessment inaccuracies are only natural and to be expected in such an environment.
Another set of challenges that can impede self-assessment proficiency deal with individuals’ own personality factors such as their self-esteem and their level of anxiety. Because self-exploration and self-assessment activities involve information about oneself, the process of acquiring and using such information can cause anxiety and be a threat to one’s self-esteem. Researchers have pointed out that anxiety can be a serious threat to self-assessment accuracy. Because highly anxious people focus on their anxious feelings rather than the information at hand, they may not be able to benefit from much self-exploration. In addition, highly anxious people may get defensive about any threatening self-related information and may distort, dismiss, or misinterpret that information, resulting in an inaccurate self-assessment.
Further complicating this picture is the influence of self-esteem on self-exploration and self-assessment processes. Individuals with low self-esteem tend to distort ambiguous cues in ways that are consistent with their low self-images. They also tend to underestimate positive evaluations from others and generally tend to accept more negative feedback than those with high self-esteem. It has been suggested that individuals need to balance their desire for accurate assessment with their desire to maintain a positive self-image. However, when the balance is tipped toward creating or maintaining a particular self-image—whether positive or negative—inaccuracies in self-assessments are bound to occur.
Related to this issue is the problem of self-presentation that unfavorably influences self-assessment accuracy. The self-presentation problem refers to the dilemma that individuals face in seeking information while protecting their images as self-assured, confident people. It has been suggested that individuals who experience such self-presentational pressures are constrained in their self-assessment activities not by their environment but by their own perceptions of the costs involved to their self-image. Some researchers point out that the primary cost of seeking any information or help is that it exposes the seeker’s uncertainty and need for help. As a result, such individuals tend to rely more on their own self-observations and seek only limited amounts of feedback and other information, which has the effect of contributing to a lopsided understanding of oneself.
The previous discussion highlighted some of the inaccuracies that may occur in the self-exploration and self-assessment processes and the underlying reasons for these inaccuracies. In examining self-assessment inaccuracies, there are three questions researchers have had to grapple with. First, what is the cost of these inaccurate self-assessments for both individuals and organizations? It has been suggested that since self-assessments involve judgments about the self, they tend to have a strong impact on both psychological and behavioral processes. For example, self-assessments, whether accurate or not, may affect individuals’ self-efficacy expectations, their persistence at a task, and in some cases, even their future aspiration levels. Furthermore, because self-appraisals tend to serve as guides for future action, it is possible that individuals with inaccurate self-views would either hastily act on something (e.g., a career goal), mistakenly quit tasks, or fail to alter their behavior when the environment demands it.
The information on the organizational costs of individuals’ inaccurate self-views tends to be less clear. However, it has been shown that inaccurate self-views, particularly inflated self-views of organizational leaders, might lead these leaders to commit themselves and their financial resources to a losing course of action.
The other two questions that have challenged researchers studying self-assessment accuracy have been more philosophical ones but have pragmatic implications. One of them deals with the extent to which accuracy in self-assessment is a desirable goal to strive for. This issue challenges the basic usefulness of accurate and realistic self-awareness and questions whether there might be a greater value in seeking information that is self-enhancing rather than being merely accurate. The second question asks us to think about the criteria that would constitute self-assessment accuracy. In other words, is accuracy in the eyes of the beholder (the person engaging in self-exploration), or does some outside observer determine the accuracy of one’s self-assessment? These issues have generated much debate, but conclusive guidelines are yet to emerge.
In conclusion, researchers interested in understanding the nature of self-awareness continue to fine-tune the questions they ask and are broadening their focus to examine a variety of contextual and interpersonal pressures that influence the exploratory activities leading up to self-awareness. We know about some of the important outcomes of self-awareness, and researchers continue to investigate other immediate and long-term outcomes of self-awareness.
- Ashford, S. J. 1989. “Self-Assessments in Organizations: A Literature Review and Integrative Model.” Research in Organizational Behavior 11:133-174.
- Ashford, S. J. and Tsui, A. S. 1991. “Self-regulation for Managerial Effectiveness: The Role of Active Feedback Seeking.” Academy of Management Journal 2:251-280.
- Blustein, D. L. 1994. “‘Who Am I?’: The Question of Self and Identity in Career Development.” Pp. 139-154 in Convergence in Career Development Theories: Implications for Science and Practice, edited by M. L. Savickas and R. W. Lent. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
- Callanan, G. A. and Greenhaus, J. H. 1999. “Personal and Career Development: The Best and Worst of Times.” Pp. 146-171 in Evolving Practices in Human Resource Management: Responses to a Changing World of Work,edited by A. I. Kraut and A. K. Korman. San Francisco,CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Church, A. H. 1997. “Managerial Self-awareness in High-performing Individuals in Organizations.” Journal ofApplied Psychology 82:281-292.
- Greenhaus, J. H., Callanan, G. A. and Godshalk, V. M. 2000.Career Management. 3d ed. Fort Worth, TX: Dryden Press.
- Manz, C. 1986. “Self-leadership: Toward an Expanded Theoryof Self-influence Processes in Organizations.” Academy ofManagement Review 11:585-600.
- Phillips, S. D. 1982. “Career Exploration in Adulthood.”Journal of Vocational Behavior 20:129-140.
- Singh, R. 2001. “The Effectiveness of Different Career Decision-making Behaviors: Development and Test of a Model.” PhD dissertation, LeBow College of BusinessDrexel University, Philadelphia, PA.