Careers Aren't What They Used to Be, but You Can Still Be the Maker of Your Own Success

Careers Aren't What They Used to Be, but You Can Still Be the Maker of Your Own Success


Careers used to be interpreted as a race to the top, with salaries and hierarchical levels as the only measures of success. Now we know that that careers are a multifaceted and culture-dependent construct, with subjective considerations as important as objective ones. Nonetheless, individual proactivity remains an important determinant of success across many cultures, according to a new paper that examines the relation between proactive career behaviors, perceived financial success and work-life balance.

The paper, co-authored by Bocconi’s Silvia Bagdadli with 11 other scholars of the Cross-Cultural Collaboration on Contemporary Careers (5C) research collaborative (, analyzes a sample of 11,892 employees from 22 countries and finds that proactive career behaviors (including career planning, skill development and consultation with senior colleagues) have a positive effect on subjective financial success but don’t affect subjective work-life balance.
Furthermore, the effect of the same behavior varies, to some extent, according to the features of national cultures. Proactivity and financial success have stronger ties in cultures with high in-group collectivism (the degree to which individuals express pride, loyalty, and cohesiveness in their organizations or families), high power distance (hierarchical cultures) and low uncertainty avoidance (cultures with a high regard of risk taking).
The legitimization of proactive behaviors towards work-life balance is more culturally contingent, with stronger effects in cultures with high in-group collectivism and high humane orientation (the degree to which an organization or society encourages and rewards individuals for being fair, altruistic, friendly, generous, and kind to others).
The results suggest that proactive career behaviors generally pay off in terms of perceived financial success and that organizations should, thereof, support employees to be more proactive, with only minor cultural adjustments needed for MNEs that manage careers across countries.
«The switch to consider a subjective view of individual careers, that measures how people feel about their experience, has its origins in the mid-80s», Prof. Bagdadli explains, «when the big companies began major downsizing, changing the psychological contract that viewed the employer-employee relationship as permanent and the corporate hierarchy as a ladder to climb. With flat corporations and promotions less available, we needed another idea of career».
Scholars began to study  the subjective dimension of career success, understanding that people’s satisfaction with their careers isn’t rigidly related to objective measures, and the importance of the cultural context.
In another collective effort including 13 countries, Silvia Bagdadli and 20 co-authors show that people from different parts of the world see careers in different ways. In particular, Western countries cluster around a «modular» success view that matches the dominant scholarly view of a multidimensional, subjective career success: people acknowledge many aspects of a career success and give them separate, but shared, meanings.
«In these countries», Prof. Bagdadli says, «traditional career management systems are well suited, as they focus on well-understood meanings of career success. In other countries, singling out specific career success meanings, providing for instance only pay rises or only learning and development, doesn’t resonate with local cultures and HR practices may need to be more holistic».
But the pendulum that swings between objectivity and subjectivity in career success may have gone too far, and in a recent paper with Martina Gianecchini (University of Padova), Silvia Bagdadli conducts a systematic review of empirical studies showing that organizational career management (the activities companies carry out to sustain their employees’ career development) truly affects objective career success, even if subject to some contingency factors.
Adam Smale, Silvia Bagdadli, Richard Cotton et al., Proactive career behaviors and subjective career success: The moderating role of national cultures, in Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2019;40: 105-122, DOI: 10.1002/job.2316.
Robert Kaše, Silvia Bagdadli et al., Career success schemas and their contextual embeddedness: A comparative configurational perspective, in Human Resource Management Journal, early view, DOI: 10.1111/1748-8583.12218.
Silvia Bagdadli, Martina Gianecchini, Organizational career management practices and objective career success: A systematic review and framework, in Human Resource Management Review, in press, available online, DOI: 10.1016/j.hrmr.2018.08.001.

by Fabio Todesco


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