Careers: No Ladder to Climb?

The most traditional of all career forms is the bureaucratic, hierarchical career. (Kanter, 1989). You know the model. The only way to go is up, and promotions with concurrent pay raises represent career advancement for the most part. This may be fine for the individual who desires to manage at ever-increasing levels of responsibility… and who also accepts the inherent idea that competition intensifies as advancement continues because there are fewer and fewer slots at the top.

Standard bureaucratic organizations are said to be best-suited for times of stability rather than change. And while nature loves a hierarchy, it’s an emergent hierarchy — not an imposed one that can be implemented solely by creating a new organizational chart. (Morgan, 1997)

Working within bureaucratic organizations can pose special challenges for individuals who: 1) Do not wish to manage or lead. 2) Pursue professional careers. These two groups may not necessarily be mutually exclusive.

Let’s look at each briefly.

Those Who Don’t Want to Manage
Not everyone wants to manage. I don’t think we’ve addressed career anchors yet in much detail yet, so this is a good opportunity to do that. Edgar Schein (1980), one of the leading figures in the development of organizational psychology, originally proposed that there are five distinct career anchors. These are “technical/functional competence,” “managerial competence,” “creativity,” “security or stability” and “autonomy.” He later added three more: “service/dedication to a cause,” “pure challenge” and “lifestyle.” You can read more here: Schein’s Career Anchors

Now, you might look at that list and think that all of them – or maybe two or three – are your anchors; but Schein says that one is dominant; and you only know what it is in retrospect by reviewing your career decisions thus far.

Our “autonomous” anchor is a good match for someone who doesn’t want to manage. This group, Schein says, wants to determine its own hours, working patterns and lifestyle. Individuals with this anchor are most likely to drop out of “conventional business organizations, though their consulting or teaching activities continue to be related to business and management.”

You can see where an individual with an autonomous career anchor might not be a good fit in a bureaucratic organization. Yet there’s no reason to assume that this individual is any less desirous of career advancement than someone whose anchor is managerial competence. But where are this careerist’s opportunities for advancement within a bureaucratic organization?

Those with Professional Careers
Our second group is represented generously in the academic literature by engineers, for example. However, physicians, attorneys, artists and actors also have professional careers. The distinction is that the identity affiliation with one’s profession, rather than one’s organization may be stronger. So let’s go with an engineer example, using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers, 1980). We’ll look at what might be the case when a very talented engineer is promoted to a position that requires business development or marketing skills.

According to Myers, “among research scientists and design engineers, introverted (I) intuitives (N) stand at the top.” Among engineers, INTJs and INFJs are common types. For starters, these are people who are energized more from what’s going on inside their own heads versus what’s happening in the external environment, which is where new business comes from.

One of Myers’ key ideas behind types is that we can all become more balanced and capable of dealing with others if we understand and work at developing our auxiliary types – i.e. the non-dominant ones. An INTJ or INFJ who has not done this is not well-suited for a job that requires a great deal of interaction with the external environment or viewing issues from a customer perspective. Myers writes: “They will have little or no development of an outer personality and equally limited use of the gifts,” and “even when well-balanced, they have a tendency to ignore the view and feelings of other people.” So, we have an engineer who doesn’t get to do what he enjoys and is good at, and in fact, may be painfully aware that he’s in a bad-fit situation. Conversely, it doesn’t seem all that realistic for the organization to expect this change to generate much new business.

So, then, where are the opportunities for career advancement for an talented engineer in a bureaucratic organization?

Guest & Sturges (in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007) suggest that individuals who do not fit the traditional upward path respond in variety of ways. Not all of them are looked upon with favor by management.

Methods of Responding
They become stars within their organizations, and even though they may have topped out at a salary level, their talent and expertise built over time have earned them a reputation based on achievement, a reputation that brings a measure of satisfaction. The work of Zabusky and Barley (1996) is cited.

They seek variety and control. This illustrates the concept of resistance, which we addressed last week. However, the ways in which individuals may seek greater variety in their jobs and greater control in their workplace may be frustrating to those who hold legitimate power in a bureaucratic organization.

They disengage. They settle in where they are and do what the job requires without investing emotionally in it.

They change employers, which falls under the concept of “tourism” and is related to the idea of boundaryless careers, which we also touched on last week.

They become self-employed.

They opt out and become unemployed.

So not a lot of encouragement here, especially if one is seeking to increase earnings; but it is heartening to read that key writers in academia are looking at the issue from a critical perspective.

It would be great to hear from anyone who has struggled with his or her place in a bureaucratic organization and found a satisfactory solution. Or, if anyone has a problem, we could discuss that as well.

Till next time, all my best,

References (Accessed: May 2008). Schein’s Career Anchors. Schein’s Career Anchors

Guest, D, Sturges, J. (1997). Living to work – working to Live: conceptualizations of careers among contemporary workers. In Gunz, H & Peiperl, M., Handbook of Career Studies. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore: Sage.

Kanter, R. (1989). Careers and the wealth of nations: a macro-perspective on the structure and implications of career form. In M.B. Arthur, D.T. Hall & B.S. Lawrence (Eds), Handbook of Career Theory. Cambridge: CUP, 506-521.

Morgan, G. (1997). Images of organization. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage.

Myers, I. (1980). Gifts differing: understanding personality type. Palo Alto, California: Davies-Black Publishing.

Schein, E. (1980). Organizational psychology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Secondary Reference
Zabusky, S. & Barley, S. (1996). Redefining success: Ethnographic observation on the careers of technicians. In P. Osterman (Ed.), Broken ladders: managerial careers in the new economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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