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Jobs >> Articles >> Employment Career Feature >> The Goals of Career Intervention
  • Employment Career Feature

The Goals of Career Intervention


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Many clients come to career counseling believing that their major life goals are not realistically attainable. This creates an odd situation, since very few of my clients (except the younger ones) entertain goals that are in fact unrealistic for them. If anything, they underestimate their ability. As Markus and Nurius (1986) noted, these clients can imagine both what they would like to become and what they are afraid of becoming, but feel unable to control the actual outcome of their career. This sense of a lack of control often results in inaction, passivity, or what Beck (1967) called paralysis of the will, to such a degree that the clients in fact relinquish control over their careers and thus become subject to the vagaries of chance. This sort of inaction is frequently seen in employees who have been given several months' notice of a layoff, but cannot act to secure alternative positions until the present job has indeed ended. Some of these clients are depressed, and when their depression lifts, they initiate action. More often, however, the immobility results from their lack of faith in their ability to control the outcome of any overt action on their own behalf. The combination of this inaction and lack of faith can lead to a state of career despair.

In addressing the problem of control, Postulate 1 relies heavily on Strong's (1978) compelling work on social influence theory, in which he argued that the goal of psychotherapy is to return control to the client: "Clients are the agents of change in their lives and therapists are like coaches that clients retain to help them do what they must" (p. 103).

Postulate 1. The goal of career intervention is to enhance the mobilization of persistently constructive attitudes, emotions, and behaviors that will improve the client's career attainment.

Strong's view fits well with those of a variety of behavioral theorists who believe that psychologists should study what people actually do when faced with difficult circumstances in addition to studying "what they say they do, would like to do, or report doing on an inventory" (Pervin, 1983, p. 3). In career situations, the returning of control to the client must be accompanied by a series of constructive behaviors that are associated with the successful negotiation of career situations (see Azrin & Besalel, 1980).

The goal of a career intervention is to promote the constructive responses, especially the four key reactions (embrace of an organizing system, resolution of paralysis of the will, hope, and exploration of options). The most destructive responses are characteristic of moderate to severe depression (Beck, 1967), and are seen during prolonged unemployment (Herr, in press) and difficult career transitions. In spite of the apparent benefits of active strategies on career decisions, some clients will withdraw psychologically from their problems and their work environments, preferring cognitive explanations to overt action as a control strategy (see Rothbaum, Weisz, & Snyder, 1983). In career counseling, this passive or secondary control strategy may be particularly self-defeating, since clients will expend most of their time and energy trying to explain their career difficulties, and will have little energy or desire left to explore new options and collect information needed to make the choice. Janis and Mann (1977) called this strategy defensive avoidance, which, they maintained, led to poor decisions. Denial or withdrawal may occasionally be helpful in adjusting to stressful work environments, and a client's unique predicament may call for some combination of action and denial. Usually, however, mobilization for constructive career action is the appropriate goal for career counseling.

Three recent articles shed some light on the dynamics of persistence in the face of barriers in general (Kernis, Zuckerman, Cohen, 8c Spadafora, 1982; Koslowsky, Kluger, & Yinon, 1988; Sandelands, Brockner, & Glynn, 1988). Kernis et al. gave subjects several abstract tasks, and manipulated the internality and externality of the subjects' explanations for their success or failure. Persistence and interest in the task at hand were greater when failure was attributed to an external rather than an internal cause, but only when the subjects were highly aware of the actual quality of their own performance. Subjects who were aware of the level of their performance and who attributed failure to an external reason persisted for a longer period and became more invested in the intrinsic benefit of the task itself. Likewise, Sandelands et al. found greater task persistence when subjects were led to believe that continuous behavior and persistence were essential to successful performance. They concluded that management could encourage persistent performance by shaping workers' belief that a specific task required more continuous activity and thereby escalate commitment. Lastly, Koslowsky et al. examined subjects' intention to participate in a specific activity, and found that it predicted eventual behavior as long as no barriers to participation were encountered. When subjects faced impediments, a combination of intention to participate and investment in the activity was a better predictor of eventual behavior than intention alone.

Apparently, a high level of investment or commitment in the target behavior resulted in a more realistic appraisal of the person's chances for actually carrying out a specific behavior. Taken together, these three studies suggest that improvements in self-awareness and commitment to a task serve to buffer negative outcomes that might result from environmental barriers. Apparently, however, neither intention (Koslowsky et al., 1988) nor commitment alone (Phillips, 1982) is sufficient to predict positive career outcomes. When exploring career possibilities, the ability to face repeated rebuffs while still maintaining some intentional status and motivation increases the likelihood of a positive outcome and higher quality decision. As Blustein (1988) found, motivational orientations (e.g., autonomy and control) are good predictors of the level of self-determination (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

The reflexive use of denial or avoidance when faced with a difficult career decision can take several forms, including the almost universal wish or expectation that the counselor will somehow provide a perfect solution that will maintain self-esteem and enhance satisfaction and performance. It is striking how many clients come to career counseling looking for a magic pill or answer that will relieve their career conflict. The competent counselor will of course work to overcome rather than react to denial and avoidance. Avoidance or denial is generally preceded by anxiety about the client's ability (or lack of it) to make and implement a satisfactory choice. Once a client begins to mobilize for constructive behavior, that person's approach to counseling changes markedly from one of avoidance and fear to one of challenge and excitement. The resolution of paralysis of will is a critical out-come of a career intervention and an important precondition for the mobilization of constructive behavior. The activation of hope and persistent exploratory behavior are keys to the client's ability to regain control and implement a successful career decision.

It should be noted that most people who come for career counseling are well adjusted and psychologically healthy, with a fairly localized difficulty in making career choices. Their attitudes, emotions, and behaviors will fall within the constructive range, and can be made more so by a successful career intervention. There are, however, those clients who have both career and personal problems, and those who have more extensive emotional problems that must be identified and then either treated or referred. Increasingly, career problems are embedded within a range of personal problems that may make the separation of career and personal domains less desirable and practical. Crites's (1981) comment that career counseling begins where personal counseling leaves off simplifies the work of the career counselor with those clients who have finished or have no need for personal therapy, but excludes those who have career and personal problems, which is an increasing proportion of the clientele seen in most settings.


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