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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

What does 'career' mean to you?

‘From my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as something artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.’ – Toni Morrison

A great deal has been said and written by career psychologists and HR specialists about protean, or boundaryless careers, even in the decades prior to the internet era.

In this post I share a few thoughts on agile careers in a digital economy.

A 'protean' career is defined by Douglas Hall, who was a pioneer in the development of the concept, as a career orientation in which the person, not the organization, is in charge; where the person’s core values are driving career decisions; and where the main success criteria are subjective (psychological success). Hall's definition seems relevant now more than ever.

The implications of ongoing and accelerating digitalization for careers are profound. The ways in which people will work, develop their careers, and grow as leaders is different in many ways to traditional career-development norms, as Linda Holbeche, a researcher of agile HR practices has argued.

At relatively progressive organizations, such as Microsoft, employees have long had a choice as to when, where and how they work to achieve their goals. This also enables employees to manage and develop their own careers in creative ways. As Marianna Roach pointed out in a report on flexible working that pre-dates COVID-19:

‘At Microsoft, a UK Best Workplace, employees are not expected to be office bound. They are empowered to find a flexible working style that suits them. Microsoft policy towards casual home working enables employees to work from home on an ad-hoc basis – this flexibility allows employees to choose their environment to fit the task and/or to help manage unexpected family commitments or transport disruptions. This flexible working style allows employees to work from home when they need to and does not need to be part of a formal alternative working pattern.’

It appears that Microsoft adopted a sound approach to introducing a new way of working flexibly, which was intentional, equitable, and empowering. This reflects empirical research findings, which strongly indicate that flexible working, or remote and agile working, that is forced on people or implemented badly (for example as a knee-jerk reaction to COVID-19) can have detrimental effects on wellbeing and performance.

With agile working patterns and flexibility comes a shifting set of assumptions about what work really means, and with this shift, new perspectives on what a career really looks like.

Organizational shifts towards greater agility are likely also to represent an implied shift towards agile careers and gig working. This has profound implications for individuals.

Empirical research suggests there are correlations between more flexible, unpredictable careers and a ‘proactive personality’, ‘career self-efficacy’ and a ‘boundaryless mindset’. The protean career is connected to an agile orientation towards goals. This represents a shift away from status and performance orientation, which tends to view success as a fixed goal or destination ("I must get promoted to xyz level in my company") and defined with 'extrinsic' goals (e.g."I must earn $x per annum").

In today’s agile working environment there is likely to be more room to define success for ourselves, in ways which are more complex, intangible, nuanced and responsive to our deeper needs (e.g. "I would like to be a thought leader and positive contributor to my profession"). Due to its less rigid nature, agile working may in turn create more space for career choices which are driven by personal values that go beyond money or status (e.g. "I would like to support sustainability and wellbeing").

It will be harder for knowledge-workers to drink the traditional corporate-career cool-aid, simply to aspire to be like their bosses one day, when they are only physically at work, imbibing various subtle corporate cultural cues for only one or twe days a week, or less. Over the long-term, agile working is likely to reinforce autonomy, self-management and independence of thought.

A protean career orientation includes psychological self-direction and value-driven orientation. As a pre-COVID longitudinal study indicates, people who are self-directed and value-driven in their career decisions, rather than in need of motivation by others, or by outward signs of success, tend to be more proactive in seeking opportunities. This, in turn, helps them to succeed in re-employment after periods of unemployment. The research suggests that may be because those who are intrinsically motivated and values-driven are more flexible in their thinking about what kinds of roles they might consider, and less rigid in their expectations.

The way individuals think about their careers and approach career decisions has always mattered for their own career and life outcomes. It is likely that in today’s digital economy it matters more than ever before because our careers exist in an extremely dynamic environment. The economic 'system' we all inhabit is far from systematic in its behaviour, in how it is shaped both by externalities such as COVID, and by technology.

Careers are themselves being redefined and are in a massive state of flux. In such a context, those who are self-directed and proactive (which is not the same as 'planned') give themselves a better chance of success, however they choose to define it. This is likely to be true even as we take into account differing initial starting points in life, and associated levels or types of privelege.

Climate change is also creating additional layers of uncertainty - and opportunity. Climate anxiety or 'eco-anxiety' will increase the attractiveness of work which somehow contributes to a more sustainable future. People who are proactive will find meaningful and pragmatic ways to make a difference, rather than be drawn into unproductive responses.

In a modern techno-Darwinian employment environment, punctuated as it will continue to be by massively destabilising events, each of us needs to work on our anxiety levels. Our ability to craft our own careers, whatever our starting point in life or personal situation happens to be, will be critical to our sense of success, and psychological self-efficacy.

Something Bruce Lee once said in a famous interview comes to mind:

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

How do you think about and manage your own working identity, and your career, in an era of uncertainty and anxiety about the future?

See also -

Bridgstock, R. (2011). The Protean Careers of Artists: Exploring skill and attitude predictors of success. Brisbane, Australia: Lap Lambert Academic Publishing.

Briscoe, J.P., Hall, D.T., & DeMuth, F. (2006). Protean and boundaryless careers: An empirical exploration. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 69(1), pp. 30–47. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2005.09.003

Gubler, M., Arnold, J., & Coombs, C. (2014). Reassessing the protean career concept: Empirical findings, conceptual components, and measurement. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35, pp. 23–40.

Hall, D. T. and Moss, J. E. (1998). The new protean career contract: Helping organizations and employees adapt. Organizational Dynamics, 28(2), pp. 22–37. See also, Hall, D.T. (2004). The protean career: A quarter-century journey. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65, pp. 1–13. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2003.10.006

Holbeche, L. (2015). The Agile Organization: How to build an innovative, sustainable and resilient business. London, UK: Kogan Page. pp. 173–179.

Joyce, K., Critchley, J.A., & Bambra, C. (2009). Flexible working conditions and their effects on employee health and wellbeing (Protocol). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Issue 2. Art. No.: CD008009. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008009.pub2.

Roach, M. (2016). Flexible Working: Are employers missing a trick? London, UK: Great Place to Work. p. 8.

Waters, L., Briscoe, J.P., Hall, D.T., & Wang, L. (2014). Protean career attitudes during unemployment and reemployment: A longitudinal perspective. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 84, pp. 405–419.

My books are available on Amazon:

Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world

Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose


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