Are We Developing People or Careers?

Over the past ten years we have seen a shift within organizations toward a focus on the career development of its members. More and more companies are leveraging their talent acquisition by offering career pathways for new recruits. 

“Come grow with us.” “Explore your potential with a company that cares about your development.” “We invest in our people because they are our greatest asset.”

But here’s where things get screwy. 

If the new recruit has ideas or strategies that are not contained within her job description or her departmental objectives, few companies or managers know how to foster her ideas, let alone provide an opportunity to seriously explore her strategies. Unless you are in the C-suite, diverging from one’s job description is not always a good idea. But this new recruit selected the company because they promised to develop her potential. Besides which, her career coach advised her that the new world of work demands ingenuity, creativity, flexibility, bold thinking, and most of all, resilience. Seizing upon these new world of work behaviours could get her labelled as difficult, unable to follow direction and unwilling to be a team player.

As someone who had been in a career coaching role for over ten years prior to moving into human resources, this scenario is all too familiar. And, sigh, depressing. 

But first, a little history.

Career development theory has its roots in the 1920’s, when soldiers returned home from the war and needed to be reintegrated into the workforce. Early theories, many of which are still in wide use today, matched the person to the job. By analyzing the individual and matching them to similar jobs, a career path was selected. This is vastly simplified, of course, but you get the idea. 

Career development theory has been slowly starting to move beyond the person-fit model. New work by Robert Pryor and Jim Bright, The Chaos Theory of Careers, assert that congruence between the person and the environment correlate poorly with outcome measures such as satisfaction. Furthermore, person-environment fit models do not capture the complexities, uncertainties and dynamic aspects of modern work. Well that’s just great.

Today’s job candidates want meaningful work, work that matters to them and strive to learn how to capitalize on chance events and opportunities. Organizations, more specifically, human resources, considers the potential of the career, in combination with other factors, in the process of wealth creation. When you are building job descriptions, screening job applicants for a match, and then selecting job candidates who “fit” the job profile, you are using this early person-environment fit model. But we are bringing people in to help keep the organization profitable.

Here’s the problem. 

Are you advertising for square pegs for your square pegs?  Not likely. You probably want pegs that can think in round shapes or even in star shapes. You want pegs that can go beyond whatever shapes you offer.  But only as long as they fit the job description they were hired for. And they perform according to the metrics outlines in your performance management system.  And they turn up each day at a set time.  And they follow the company’s code of conduct. And they adhere to all applicable health and safety regulations.

I may be off base here, but it seems to me that for all of HR’s struggle to become strategic, set benchmarks, and analyze metrics we have forgotten that for individuals, it’s still about finding meaning. And, more importantly, as environments change, we must change with it to survive.

So if we live in a time of such exponential change, how come we spend so much time developing ironclad job descriptions and insist that people follow them?

About the Author

Alyson Nyiri

Alyson Nyiri, BA CDP, CHRP is an HR Writer / Researcher living in rural Ontario, Canada. She can be reached at


Dr Jim Bright

Great post, love the “You want pegs that can go beyond whatever shapes you offer” metaphor!
Dr Jim (co-author Chaos Theory of Careers)

Jayne Powers

How thought provoking! As a recruiter in the banking industry, I would love to hear any thoughts about how to encourage creativity, initiative and bold thinking in our employees who are under a ton of regulations. We have a great company, terrific employees who do want meaning and I want to do my part to see it/them succeed. Thanks for getting the juices flowing…


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