Some individuals enter their career knowing what they want to do and have some kind of idea of the tools they need to get there right from the start. Other individuals may drift around, looking at different industries until something strikes their fancy, or until financial reasons push them into work. For companies to understand what drives their employees’ career choices – which is a critical part of producing successful, motivated employees – all of these starting points need to be taken into consideration. To explore this, and to help an organization understand each employee’s situation and desired future, career development theories have been developed that speak to an employee’s place and path in their workplace.

Career Development Theories

There are a number of career development theories that model how an employee moves through their career, with the goal of understanding the process so that employers can make the right moves for a beneficial relationship. These theories are usually some combination of two basic categories: theories of process and theories of content.

The theories of process focus on a person’s movement through a number of phases or stages, and the ways they change as they do. Theories of content focus more on a person’s intrinsic identity, or the context in which a person lives, and how these internal characteristics shape a person’s direction. While each category has its merits, most modern approaches consider a mix of both to describe the manner of motivating a career. There are many career development theories at this point which draw from the foundation of a select few.

Holland’s Theory of Career Choice

Holland’s theory proposes that people match their skills and personality to a work environment that is similar, and that most people want to work with an environment of people like them. The theory divides both personalities and workplaces into six basic categorizations, which form a hexagon in a specific order.

  • Realistic people like working with their hands, tools and machines, and view themselves as practical, reliable mechanically-inclined workers. They’re often drawn to careers in engineering, mechanics, agriculture and other hands-on areas.
  • Investigative people like to explore and solve problems by researching new ideas, completing experiments and reviewing data. Careers in this category include science, engineering and research and development.
  • Artistic individuals are drawn to express themselves by creating and designing things or through performance. They’re artists, musicians, writers, actors and graphic designers, and find themselves in fields promoting the creative arts.
  • Social people are focused on helping others, whether through teaching, training, service or applied care, all with the focus being on working with other people. Careers include health care, social work, teachers and customer service.
  • Enterprising people are leaders who are drawn to influence and encourage others, providing direction and planning. They often end up in business, politics, entrepreneurship, management and sales.
  • Conventional individuals like working with data and numbers in a set procedural way; they’re methodical, thorough and pay attention to detail. Career areas include accounting, economics, clerical work and information management.

Holland’s theory assumes that people of one personality type will want to work in a field and environment that’s similar to their personality type. Those who follow this plan are more likely to be satisfied with their career and be successful in it. Those who end up with their personality mismatched to their work will not be as motivated, nor as successful.

The RIASEC Hexagon

These vocational personalities also work in relation to each other to form the RIASEC hexagon, which arranges them by degrees of similarity. For example, people who fall into the Social category are more agreeable to Artistic or Enterprising workplaces than they might be to a Realistic workplace.

This can come into play when an individual has ended up in a non-ideal job (for example, for financial reasons, through promotion or reorganization, or a job transfer) and their personality type is a mismatch for the work they’re being asked to do. Once the company identifies this reason for what may look like poor performance, management can take steps to help get that employee back on track in a direction more suitable for their own personality type.

Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory

Bandura’s original career theory model proposes the way people interact with their environment and learn from others becomes the core motivator for their career path. This theory was further developed to propose that an individual’s learned beliefs about positive and negative outcomes from certain types of behavior will affect their expectations, and thus, their decision-making. The interaction between an individual’s ability to achieve, their expected outcome and the actual outcome is what motivates a person’s career choices under this model.

The theory focuses on self-efficacy: a person’s belief that they are capable of performing an action that will produce a specific desired outcome. The expectation that the action will produce the result is called outcome expectation, whereas the expectation that the person can successfully perform the action is called efficacy expectation. This theory posits that these are learned behaviors individuals pick up from childhood onward by observing the environment.

This concept of belief in self and belief in this set of expectations ends up driving the career process. Bandura’s theory proposes that people are drawn to fields they’re more likely to be successful in, requiring skills they either have or are capable of learning. They likewise stay away from career paths involving skills they think they don’t have or can’t learn. Understanding these aspects can help management focus on the development an employee thinks they need, with the goal of increasing their measure of self-efficacy with regards to the workplace.

Super’s Self Concept Theory

Super’s “Life Span, Life Space” theory proposes that a person’s self-concept – how they view themselves, how they think they are viewed and how they want to be viewed – is the main force behind career and development choices. It identifies a set of development stages, identified roughly by age ranges, through which individuals move: growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance/management, disengagement.

The key to this theory is the identification of roles an individual might have at any point in this cycle – for example, a working woman may be a manager, wife, mother and student, all at the same time – and how the changing prioritization of these roles controls one’s motivations. The theory also links the work-life balance together, since one’s self-concept is considered within the context of all of one’s roles, not just professional ones.

Five Stages of Career Development

The five stages of career development defined in the Self Concept Theory are generally recognized as the cycle an individual goes through during their career. In some career development theories, each of these stages is associated with an age range during an individual’s life, but the cycle can apply to an individual’s career point no matter their age.

  1. Growth: This early stage is the place to develop self-concept, attitudes and needs, as well as defining abilities and areas of interest.
  2. Exploration: In this stage, individuals try on a few different roles, and eventually focus on a specific career direction and look for additional education and training.
  3. Establishment: This stage is where a career is developed to the point of being stable; individuals settle into their roles and advance as needed.
  4. Maintenance: The maintenance stage is the point where an employee is securely established in their role and needs to decide whether to “hold on” (i.e., stagnate in the role) or “keep up” (i.e., continuing to improve by updating skills).
  5. Decline: This final stage is the point where an employee’s focus moves to things outside the job: retirement, leisure activities or a new career.

Vocational Development Process

Vocational development, the process of creating and expressing one’s self-concept, is the result of moving through these five stages, focusing in each stage to master the required skill set before advancing. On a macro scale, this cycle describes an individual’s lifetime as related to their career; on a micro scale, however, it can capture movement through one career field and onto another. The theory proposes that the development of the self-concept is a long-term process, and people will look for work that allows them to continue this process.

In summary:

  • Theory of career choice proposes that people choose jobs in which the work and environment suit their intrinsic personality type.
  • Social cognitive career theory proposes that people choose jobs where they believe they can be successful.
  • Self-concept theory proposes that people choose jobs which match their concept of themselves at that particular point in their life.

Career Theory Models

Organizations use career theory and practices to help standardize and manage career development. These models help an employee understand the paths their career could take, define the expectations and requirements for advancement and outline what separates adequate and excellent performance. Having a standardized career model builds a solid foundation for the business’s talent development strategy, because it provides a central place to establish the company’s desired capabilities and allows managers to focus on strategic steps for their own employees.

Most career development models include these five steps:

  1. Assessment: evaluation of an employee’s current position and skill sets.
  2. Exploration: researching and reviewing the options that exist for the next step.
  3. Preparation: constructing a strategic plan to move to the desired next step.
  4. Implementation: executing the plan and obtaining the necessary skills, knowledge or experience required for the next step.
  5. Review: a performance evaluation that leads to a decision for the next step; normally either proof of retention of the new skills, transition into new work or advancement.

Importance of Career Development Models

These career development models help a manager and an employee create a deliberate and obtainable plan for that employee’s career. Studies show that workplaces benefit from having clear, concise and standardized job descriptions and paths for advancement and development. Employees feel more confident in their roles and are more interested and motivated to undergo training to improve their skills for future roles. This then benefits the company through increased quality and quantity of employee output.

Understanding the career development theories discussed above is key to developing a career model that suits and motivates each individual employee. Individuals who want to feel personally comfortable in their work will be motivated to develop and learn skills suited to their personality type. Those who want to be successful at their jobs will benefit from training that enhances and opens their skill sets so that they can be more confident that they will succeed at their work. Employees who look at their career as a part of their sense of self can be engaged by making sure they are continuously developing themselves as well as their skill set.

It’s always worth an organization’s time to take stock of their management methods and create a career model to help foster employee motivation. When managers understand where their employees are coming from and where they want to go with their careers, everyone wins.