A Research Paper By Angela Stockinger, Career Coach, SPAIN
So much around our life at work has changed since I started my first full-time job after university. In 2004, when I entered the workforce, most of my colleagues had a 10-year+ tenure in their role and up to 25 years of tenure in the same company. I remember me doubting if this is what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my work life. I ended up changing industry and career after 5 years and now, 12 years later, I am about to add another professional career on top of my current one. As per work standards 18 years ago, I am a unicorn, as of today, my career path is not at all unusual. The somewhat negative perception of changing careers and professional focus has normalized, it is not seen as unusual anymore; on the contrary.
A survey run by edX, an online education, and training provider, showed that of 1000 people between 25-44, 32% have considered making a career change at some point within the past year, and 29% of respondents have completely changed fields since starting their first job post-college. The year 2021 was also considered the year of the “great resignation” with high numbers of people re-evaluating their professional life and the company they work for.
But not only is it changing jobs that trend upwards, but the skill sets needed to run businesses have also transformed, and continue to transform. New technologies continue to drive changing business needs, a Gallup report on the future of jobs states that “the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate. By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” Continuous learning, adaptability, and flexibility will be new Critical survival skills in the labor market.
The pandemic and working-from-home orders have also accelerated a new approach to work-life integration, a concept of blurred lines between personal – and work time, with the individual choosing when to tackle which responsibility. In general, there seems to be a higher expectation of flexibility regarding working hours and location. According to a recent Future Forum survey published in October 2022, 78% of employees want location flexibility and 95% want schedule flexibility.
All these changing circumstances have made us look at our professional life differently and two concepts stand out to me in this context, Belonging and Growth. Both have been on the rise in comments on employee surveys, with terms like development, growth, promotion, training and inclusiveness, teamwork, and team fit being mentioned increasingly often. Belonging can show up in many different names – cultural fit, match quality, for instance – but it comes down to the idea of employees feeling that they are in the place where they should be, where their contributions are valued, and adding to something bigger. I believe both concepts, growth, and belonging, will continue to be increasingly important as change establishes itself as a permanent, growing pillar in the corporate world and entrepreneurial landscape. It will be key for employers to retain talent who can adapt and live with change, but likewise for workers to increase their self-awareness, and design their careers for their own satisfaction and happiness. I believe coaching as a continuous practice to check in on these two concepts is a powerful support tool for both employers and individuals, ensuring we are where we want to be and where we are needed.
In this research paper, I want to go deeper into coaching concepts that will be relevant in this continuous process of evaluating our matching qualities, such as self-awareness, healthy explanatory styles, and the concept of the growth mindset, all in the context described above.
Evaluating Career Match Qualities
The Oxford dictionary defines self-awareness as “conscious knowledge of one’s own character and feelings”. However, there are limits to the level of objectiveness that we can apply to evaluate our emotions and behavior.
Self-awareness plays a key role in our professional career, defining our relationships, communication style, and decision-making and impacting our stress levels and general well-being. At work, we frequently find ourselves in situations that are difficult to interpret, and we often lack the trust and courage to ask for other people’s perceptions. We are left in our own thoughts, trying our best to interpret verbal and emotional responses. One of the tools, however, to increase self-awareness, particularly in work environments is feedback. It helps us close the gap between how we perceive ourselves versus how others perceive us. Another powerful tool to increase self-awareness can also be active listening. Practicing how to listen not only to words spoken but catching emotional shifts and other non-verbal clues in a non-judgmental way will not only help us understand others better and also understand ourselves better.
An interesting fact about self-awareness is that we believe we have more of it than we actually do when being evaluated by professionals. The Harvard Business Review published a survey in 2018 where only 10-15% of survey participants fit the criteria established to be considered highly self-aware.
Building self-awareness and practicing self-awareness actively to maintain it at high levels are key to evaluating the degree of fit of our professional career, responsibilities, work environment, and goals. Coaching can support becoming more self-aware but without a basic level of willingness for higher self-awareness, a vital, productive, and successful coach-coachee partnership for the purpose of career fulfillment seems unlikely.
Storytelling – A Healthy Explanatory Style
The story we tell ourselves, the interpretation of events we chose for ourselves, is another defining factor in how we see ourselves in the workplace. Our storytelling or explanatory style is part of how we process an event, analyze, understand it, and assess it overall.
There are three dimensions to our explanatory style – the internal vs. external cause, where we ask ourselves whose fault it was, ours or someone else’s. Particularly at work, where the results of our work often directly impact our salary and bonus, we tend to seek the fault in others, even more so when acting as a collective when we put the responsibility on another team’s poor results or delayed delivery. If feedback contradicts our own story surfaces, it might be a good moment to reflect on our internal vs. external explanatory style. The second dimension is specific vs. global cause – a good example of this might be the explanation of “it was just bad luck on our part”. Bad luck is very broad and out of our control, really. Using a more specific story, however, such as “it was because I was tired” is easier to act on, for sure. Coaching can be a good process to move away from global explanations with questions around the client’s role and responsibility within an event, for instance, finding control within a space covered by blame. The third dimension is about the permanence of causes covering if it was something temporary or permanent causing the event. How do you perceive time and permanence in the context of the story? The Key is to evaluate the perception of time connected to the feeling or overall explanation.
- internal vs. external cause
- specific vs. global cause
- permanent vs. temporary cause
- explanatory style
How can knowing about our explanatory style be useful in professional life? Understanding where you stand in the spectrum, leaning more towards the pessimistic explanatory style or more towards an optimistic explanatory style, empowers you to challenge yourself. Being an optimist is generally considered healthy storytelling, as optimists tend to see poor experiences as external, temporary, specific – negative events are detached from themselves as a person and do not define them. A positive experience on the other hand will be labeled as internal, permanent, and global, as something they caused themselves, and with a broad impact. An optimistic explanatory style will lead to higher overall satisfaction in life and is therefore considered healthier. When it comes to learning a new skill, for instance, an optimist will be able to see progress easier and might also cope with potential setbacks in a lighter manner. Optimists might advance either faster or with higher satisfaction levels during the process.
Understanding our explanatory styles can be a powerful tool moving us forward in our careers, particularly when change and continuous learning are dominant. Knowing how we tend to interpret events allows us to potentially break the pattern by challenging our immediate response. A positive interpretation of events can also help create the instant gratification we often need when changing behavior or learning something new. Being an optimist helps, and those who are not one naturally can train to become one.
In the context of matching our qualities during our professional life, knowing about your explanatory styles and being open to trying to change them will be – the same as striving for a high degree of self-awareness –the key to an authentic and therefore successful outcome.
Continuous Learning and a Growth Mindset
A growth mindset is a belief that we can learn, improve, and grow with dedication, hard work, and practice. If we bring a growth mindset to our professional life, we are most likely more open to taking on new challenges, adapting easier to change, and coping better with uncertainty or even setbacks. In a dynamic world with frequent shifts to new technologies, products, markets, and practices, being either open to learning or at least curious will help us make intentional decisions regarding our careers. It is unlikely we will have the same set of responsibilities in our entire professional life, but learning will be our life-long partner. Without learning, there is no progress. An article from elearningindustry.com describes how quickly required skill sets have been changing in recent years: “The half-life of professional skills was once 10 to 15 years, and now it is just five! Well, this means that any new skill acquired, over a period of five years, becomes half as relevant as it was when it was acquired.” In a market where an acquired skill will only be relevant for a few years, the willingness to learn becomes very relevant.
From personal experience as a people manager of 5+ years of experience, I can say that it surprises me how many people seem to have fixed beliefs about what they can and cannot do. Often, I hear “I am not technical” or “I am not a designer”, and they do not consider that learning the necessary skill to be either one or both, is a possibility. A fixed mindset, the belief that we cannot learn and evolve once we reach adulthood, will not encourage learning but set expectations of perfect results. It does not allow room to fail and learn from that failure.
Believing in continuous learning and applying a growth mindset thinking process for your professional development will allow for enough freedom to explore and understand your match qualities. Knowing what our strengths are, what satisfies us, and what we consider a good fit will support our decision-making about future learning opportunities. Good match quality with a new skill to learn is a solid set-up for a successful learning experience.
Our Career Development Practice
Proactively looking for new opportunities, being curious, and experimenting can at times feel like non-productive time and we often give it a lower priority, however, labeling them as work towards your personal match quality, the degree of fit between skill and interest, adds a whole new perspective. Making the analysis of our match quality as part of our career development practice will help us identify where we are and what we think about our careers. With so many moving and changing circumstances, our opinions and perspectives can also change, there is less of an expectation at this point that we stick to a work commitment if we are not satisfied with where our degree of fit is going. As David Epstein states in his book “Range – How Generalists triumph in a specialized world” – when match quality is good, our growth rate is much higher. Experimenting is not a waste of time; it is an investment in our long-term development.
World Economic Forum, the Future of Jobs
Future Forum Pulse
Better Up, What Is Self-Awareness
Better Up, Self-Awareness in the Workplace
Harvard Business Review, What Self-Awareness Really Is
Positive Psychology, Self-Awareness
Very Well Mind, About Explanatory Styles
Positive Psychology Learned Optimism
Positive Psychology, Explanatory Styles
Epstein, David; Range – How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World; 2022
Clear, James; Atomic Habits; 2018
Wef, the Future of Jobs, Page 3
 Oxford Dictionary