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Career Anchors


Disciplines > Job-finding > Career Anchors

Security and stability | Autonomy and independence | Creativity and Entrepreneurship | Technical/functional competence | Managerial competence | Other anchors | So what?


Edgar Schein, in his exploration of career dynamics, identified five different 'anchors' that are often fundamental drivers in the way they are often key drivers in our choices of jobs and careers.

People usually have only one primary anchor, but can have other anchors in close support. Anchors are relatively stable, although life events can make people re-evaluate their purpose and hence change primary anchors.

Security and stability

Many people find it important that their jobs offer a degree of security and stability in their lives. This is natural and plays to basic needs for safety.

For others, it is of central importance and they will often avoid jobs that offer promotion and more money but which also are less stable and include greater risk of losing the job, for example in an unstable industry or perhaps where 'insufficient performance' is likely to lead to the person being sacked.

For such people risk aversion is likely to be significant and the idea of a quiet life may well be more attractive than excitement and interest of the new. Money represents safety and they are likely to save it carefully. Just having a nest-egg makes them feel good.

People may fall into this category when they want the organization to take responsibility for their life, acting perhaps as surrogate parents. They are thus happy in an institutionalized cocoon.

Another route into this state is where the person has anchors outside of work, in family, friends and community. Work in this case is less a place for meaning-making and more a place for earning money to sustain a stable local life.

Autonomy and independence

Some people find that being at somebody else's beck and call a fundamentally grating experience. They hate being told what to do, and particularly in any form of directive micro-management. They find any form of rules to be constricting and will rail and rebel against any attempt to control their lives.

Money is valued in the ability it gives the person to do their own thing. They may dream of wealth that enables them to indulge in whatever they choose, free from the necessities of normal working life.

One way they find independence in the workplaca e is by becoming an expert in their field, often through long study for professional qualification. They are driven in the effort required for this learning by the golden thought of ultimate autonomy.

They may also seek jobs that have a natural freedom and authority, such as teaching or consulting. Management often holds an allure for them as they see themselves being the controllers, and not the controlled (though in practice, they may find this is not quite the case).

Creativity and entrepreneurship

Some people are driven by the need to create and find great satisfaction in designing and constructing things that may range from products to whole businesses.

The entrepreneur is an arch-builder, creating and developing organizations that fulfil their dreams. They are not like 'ordinary' people in that they have the courage and commitment to put their whole lives into their work, rather than it being just a 'job'.

Money is both a necessary evil and a measure of success. They will do what it takes to get the finance, including mortgaging their house and maxing out their credit card -- anything to get their business idea going and make it successful. When they look at their business, the revenues gained will both indicate the degree of their success and also make them wonder what they can build next.

Such people either stay in traditional businesses only long enough to learn the ropes before breaking out on their own. An alternative approach (particularly if they also have a need for safety) is to have a traditional job but to channel their passions into a business 'on the side'.

Technical/functional competence

Many people have greater talent and interest in some particular areas. Some home in on these areas and develop this into a whole career or specialist. This may include long study, both in initial qualification and long-term study, that may turn the person into a significant expert.

Whilst money is important as an indicator of success and status, the greatest accolade such people can receive is recognition from their peers. In work, they seek to get onto the latest projects that will challenge them and help them develop their expertize, reaching and staying on the leading edge of their profession.

It can be a frustration for such specialists that their career path is limited and that to progress within a company they will have to move into management. Great engineers can make terrible and unhappy managers, yet thus often happens as they see this as the only career path available to them. A part of the problem is that they keep trying to get back to their area of interest, including 'micro-managing' the people who are still doing the job. In this way, experts can make poor people managers.

Managerial competence

In contrast to the technical/functional specialists, some people find management a great pleasure in itself and early in their career they will move into managing people and businesses.

They are often generalists in scope, preferring a broad understanding of the business and market to a narrow specialism. They love responsibility and broad challenge and take pride in achieving great things for the company. They are typically good at sizing up complex situations and people and enjoy making decisions.

They may have good 'people skills' although this is not always true as some succeed by knowing what must be done and forcing through decisions. Others are better at leadership, inspiring their followers to work towards a challenging vision. With an increasing focus in the modern age on human rights and people skills, the task-based bully is a fading management paradigm.

Other anchors

Although Schein identifies the above five anchors as the primary ones, he also notes that there may be other anchors, including:

  • Variety and change
  • Power and influence
  • Helping others

So what?

If you can identify those anchors which affect you most, then this can help you to understand and make sense of your career so far. It can also help you choose future paths that play to these needs. And of course you can help others in the same way.

See also


Schein, E. (1978). Career Dynamics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

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