Relational approach to careers practice essay
The following post is an essay researched and written in anticipation of an exam question for the module Life Career Development in pursuit of the Organizational Psychology Master's qualification within the University of London's International Programmes (Birkbeck College). Excerpts may be be used with the citation:
Aylsworth, J. (2008). Benefits of social, developmental networks in managing careers. (url) Accessed: (Month year).
Exam essay question:
"What are the key features of a relationship approach to career development? How might social and developmental networks benefit individuals in managing their careers?"
Of Social, Developmental Networks
In Managing Careers
The first part of this question will be answered with a definition of a relational approach. The second part will be addressed with the remainder of the essay. Concepts, theory, research and evidence relevant for the benefits of developmental networks for career management will be woven into an examination of five key issues: context, informal versus formal approaches, the organization as actor, a lifespan view, and the dark side of relational approaches. We will conclude by stating that individuals may best enact a relational approach to career management by honoring reciprocity and establishing their networks long before they are needed.
Paraphrasing Kram (1996), relational approaches take a holistic view of the individual, considering how he or she grows and gains work-related experience during interpersonal interactions involving others, assignments, the organization and social context.
Today’s employment context is appropriately characterized as one in which not-always-welcome change is being driven by global competition. It’s not a pretty world for the career actor – not yet anyway. Arnold (1997) acknowledges that traditional organizational structures are dissipating for employees, leaving individuals to assume more career management responsibility than previously. Sennett (1998) blasts away with his anecdotally researched “flexible capitalism,” which laments the way organizations have treated individuals in order to remain competitive. Orlando (1999) writes that downsizing has become “the major business trend of our era.” With such a dismal collage of the employment context, perhaps the touchy-feely promise of a relational approach to careers is welcome.
Informal versus formal approaches
Ties and Networks. We can think of a tie as the unit of analysis of social capital (Coleman, 1990). Social capital is that which facilitates movement within a network. It has been found to lead to finding a job and also to subjective as well as objective career success. We can think of a network as a set of person or social actors in which the tie is the unit of analysis (Seibert & Kraimer, 2001).
Regarding ties and networks, related theories that have found little empirical support are Granovetter’s (1973) weak tie theory and Burt’s (1992) structural hole theory.The former proposes that career outcomes are linked to weak ties – i.e. paraphrasing, contacts that might be more appropriately thought of as acquaintances rather than someone with whom the relationship is strong and immediate. Weak ties supposedly represent access to diverse information. Structural holes are represented by people in one’s network who do not know one another, the proposition being the more structural holes, the better for career outcomes.
Again, the implication is access to diverse information and resources. While neither theory has enjoyed much empirical support (Kidd, 2003), both have informed social resources theory (Seibert & Kraimer, 2001), which has been generally supported. Both weak ties and structural holes led to positive outcomes, but only if they were mediated by contacts in other functions and contacts at higher levels, respectively.
An additional network related construct is Higgins and Kram’s (2001) strength and diversity developmental network model. Higgins and Kram found that entrepreneurial networks, which are defined by strong ties representing a diverse range of contacts, are associated with finding a job and personal learning.
Mentoring. As noted by Kram (1985), mentoring has traditional been a relationship in which an older, more experienced worker helps a younger, less experienced one navigate the world of work. However, Higgins & Kram (2001) have also described a developmental model in which mentoring relationships are multiple, extend beyond the organization and are not designed to benefit the organization. Ragins and Cotton (1999) report that informal mentoring relationships have better outcomes than formal ones.
Organizations as actors
As prefaced in Kram’s (1996) definition of relational approaches, people do have relationships with organizations. This is illustrated by psychological contact theory, a dynamic theory of organizational chance, which, according to Herriot and Pemberton (1996), includes the idea that the organizational career is actually a sequence of psychological contract renegotiations over time. Herriot and Pemberton refer to Maning and Herriot’s (1997) definition of the psychological contract as encompassing unstated “mutual obligations” between the individual and the organization.
Kahn’s (1996) organizational caregiving proposes that the organization can be a relational party by “being present” for the employee rather than being a paternalistic fixer. Their view is supported by Eisenberger& Armeli (2001), who report that individuals valuing a reciprocity norm experience felt obligation in response to perceived support from the organization. Also, Hirsh and Jackson (2001), have shown overlap with organizational caregiving in reporting on executives’ recall of effective organizational discussions.
Developmental constellations are described by Higgins and Thomas (2001). These intra-organizational constellations are multiple, co-occurring developmental relationships, in which the relationship with the primary developer correlates with short-term outcomes, while the relationships with the constellation correlate with longer-term outcomes. The network is the unit of analysis.
A lifespan perspective
Relevant for career-enterers during young adulthood, Seibert and Kraimer (2001) note that social capital did help individuals find jobs. Relevant for the mid-careerist, Herriot and Pemberton (2001) posit the psychological contract, that is, one’s relationship with the organization, as a sequence of renegotiations. Finally, relevant for “older” workers who may be plateaued, (that is, at the highest level of responsibility they will ever reach), Arnold (1997) suggest that mentoring may help them find work-related meaning that might otherwise be lacking.
The darker side of relational approaches
Here, we touch on mentoring and reciprocity as examples – existing and potential. Mentoring issues are different for men and women. Ragins and Cotton (1999) report that mentoring relationships with male mentors typically have better outcomes and that male mentees/protégés report that their experience with female mentors were not sufficiently challenging. Arnold (1999) notices that it may be difficult to find mentors with which cultural minorities can identify.
Reciprocity is also a concern, though not one addressed during the 2007 module or reviewed yet in the literature by this writer. Arnold (1997) acknowledged the need for reciprocity, but there are many questions related to how that can be delivered – and also to the idea of how social capital can or should be spent and repaid. A few examples: How frequently can a tie – particularly a strong, high-power, influential tie – be called upon for a favor? Does asking for assistance on behalf of someone else imply endorsement and also reduce the amount of social capital to be spent in the future on oneself or others? Who keeps track of how social capital accumulates? How is the debt to be repaid? To the tie, or can it be paid forward? Are expectations of repayment tied to effort or outcome? We see, here, the possibilities of a post-modern entanglement that would be difficult to sort, if possible at all.
We conclude by agreeing with Arnold (1997) that those who enjoy the benefits of relational career approaches must be prepared to give back, though we don’t envy them in figuring out how to do that effectively and to the satisfaction of all ties involved. Another point by Arnold’s is salient: The time to get one’s informal networks in place is before they are needed – long before trouble strikes. Perhaps the latter represents the most important near-term advice for relational approaches to career management.
Exam performance: This essay above is a close approximation of the answer used under exam conditions. The exam answer was marked at a level of merit.