Business and Management INK

The Complexities of Making Key Career Decisions

February 27, 2024 294

In this article, co-authors Helen Hallpike, Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau, and Beatrice Van Der Heijden reflect on why they chose to study career decisions and how they conducted their research for their recently published article, “Distributed interactive decision-making for sustainable careers: How do executives interact with their career context when making decisions to sustain their careers?” in the German Journal of Human Resource Management.

The three co-authors of this paper wanted to understand how people make career decisions in practice. Career decision-making is a process that is difficult to analyze because it is much more complex than selecting the best option in a one-off choice.

We looked at the career models that suggest how career decisions should be made, but we felt this did not tell the whole story. Most decision-making models assume that we make our decisions as individuals, negotiating a path around obstacles to achieve our ultimate career goals. But do we always know what those goals are? And what about the times when we feel that the decision is out of our hands? Simplifying the decision-making process often makes it appear to be a series of individual logical but disconnected steps. However, taken as a whole, a career results from a lifelong series of interconnected decisions that form the narratives of our work and family lives.

So we asked executives how they made key career decisions throughout their lives, to try to find a more holistic explanation for all the different twists and turns in their career trajectories.

We found that executives claimed to have made some of the decisions along their career path proactively, but sometimes they alluded to sheer luck and sometimes they talked as if a decision had been made by a spouse or their employer, or stated that the choice was a consequence of their social background and family expectations. There were many examples where they were not in sole control of the decisions that set them on a new path: they planned to stay with the company but were made redundant when their division was closed down unexpectedly; they hoped to move to another country for a job opportunity, but their spouse and children insisted on staying where they were. Or at different career stages they simply did not know what they really wanted as their ultimate career goal: for example, many of our interviewees said that early in their lives they understood very little about the world of work and simply wanted an interesting job that was well paid and had a sustainable future.

Far from being a clear, logical process, career decision-making ranged from opportunistic to fatalistic, and from long-term planning to short-term expediency. Above all, individuals often felt that other decision-makers were actively involved in their career choices.

So we identified a gap between how we think we should go about making our career decisions and how we make our decisions in reality. We addressed this by adopting a new way of thinking of career decisions as interactions distributed between the individual and a number of decision-making agents. This approach made it possible to integrate a range of different decision-makers and decision-making styles into one holistic lifelong decision-making process.

Helen Hallpike (pictured) is a published business academic and lecturer with a PhD and an experienced businessperson with an MBA from INSEAD Global Business School from Kingston University, London. Her research focuses on decision-making for sustainable careers from a new interactive distributed perspective. Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau is a professor of behavioral science and the director of research and enterprise for Kingston Business School in London. She received her PhD in Psychology (Judgement and Decision-Making) from the University of Hertfordshire in 2004. Beatrice Van Der Heijden is a professor in strategic human resource management and the chair of business management at Radboud University. Her researcher focuses on 'ageing at work', employability, age-related stereotyping, expertise development and sustainable careers.

View all posts by Helen Hallpike, Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau, and Beatrice Van Der Heijden

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