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In a recent careers report by the London School of Business and Finance, a survey of 1000 participants was carried out using two key criteria: people had to be over the age of 18 and they had to be employed.  5 questions were asked, one of which was: “Would you like to change your career”? Some interesting findings came out, but the stand out finding was that 47% of people generally want to change careers and 32% have the intention of doing this in the next 2 years.  The report goes on to break this down by demographics (66% of millenials want to change careers compared with just 19% of older people (those aged 55+).  I strongly suggest anyone more interested in this report take the time to visit and read the conclusions and the data for themselves.  For anyone in the business of recruiting, developing and engaging talent, this is a report which should be read.  Like most surveys however, there isn’t much attempt to explain why: the reporting is factual and reads as ‘it is what it is’.  Wearing a psychology hat, I want to share two fundamental factors which influence employee engagement and could be called upon to explain some of these observations: reporting results is one thing, but seeking to explain why helps us predict and manage expectations about can realistically be achieved.

  1. Social conformity: as humans we’re very good at observing the behaviour of others and altering ours accordingly.  The rise and the increasing norm of the portfolio career, flexible working, and the increase in entrepreneurs or those working freelance for themselves, will be shaping our views about this being a new ‘norm’.  According to a House of Commons research paper ‘Business Statistics’ By Chris Rhodes from May 2015, the number of businesses has increased since 2000 from 3,467,000 to 5,243,000 (an increase of around 3% a year or 51% cumulatively). The more we see others doing this, the more is seems a viable career alternative.  Hundreds of psychology experiments attest to this fact but for the interested reader, the experiments by Solomon Asch are psychology classics.  Asch demonstrated that despite being clearly incorrect, participants would agree with others in a group.  This isn’t just a case of people being influenced by a majority:  In a paper by Dyer et al (2007) it was shown that people can respond to a minority of just 5% of a group altering the behaviour of 200 others.  Throw in a few other factors like authority (the famous and controversial Milgram or Zimbardo experiments) or closeness of relationship to those doing the influencing and the effects of this influence are particularly powerful.
  1. Changing drives and motivations. There are literally hundreds of books and theories as to what drives our behaviour, but in my view, the simplicity of the Lawrence and Nohria model is the best I have come across.  Before you shout bias, let me state, Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria are not psychologists!  They are Professors at Harvard in Organisational behaviour, (but they do draw on mainstream psychological thought).  Simply, the four drives are: Acquire, Bond, Comprehend, and Defend. These can be briefly outlined:
  • Acquire: to acquire objects and experience that improve our status (vis a vis others).
  • Bond: to build bonds with others and a sense of community.
  • Comprehend: to want to make sense of the world and to learn
  • Defend: to protect ourselves, families, friends and resources.

Which drive do you think best explains why 66% of millenials want to change careers vs only 19% of older people (those aged 55+)?  You could speculate, that the ‘defend’ drive kicks in more as people age and the window to earn and save money for retirement stops riskier career changing behaviours.  Adolescents and young adults on the other hand don’t have the burden of young families so the ‘defend’ drive has less significance at this time.  Reasons can be speculated back and forth but what is known for sure is that drives change throughout our lives and what influences them is a myriad of complex and inter-related factors (e.g age, stability of relationships, age of children, life experiences, individual differneces and many more).

It is largely reductionist to pull out any one factor, but the research indicates time and again that the relationship we have with our line manager (the bond drive) is a more significant factor than many others.  Whilst this tends to be the area which receives the most attention, it is by no means the entire picture. Often we do what might be logistically easy (recruiting graduates, spending more money on on line learning) without always focusing on what is driving people at different times of their lives.

I firmly believe that engagement and well-being at work is the touchstone that all business leaders and consultants who work in this field should strive for.  We can impact engagement levels and it is largely because we can make some difference that the answer to the question: ‘Should we bother’? Is clearly a YES!  The caveat is however, unless we understand the psychology of what is going on for people and unless we have a more realistic picture of what we can – and in many cases what we can’t control, we risk investing in initiatives, surveys, interventions, or consultancy ‘solutions’ which time and time again are not really making any significant or real impact.

By: Lucy Standing

Lucy is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and Vice Chair of the ABP (Association for Business Psychology).  She brings her passion and understanding of psychology to the world of business to help people understand that by becoming more aware and taking control, they can become far more effective in their performance at work.

Lucy has nearly 20 years’ of experience in working with companies on how to help their people to succeed at work.  Her career launched with JP Morgan Chase where as graduate recruitment manager she built a programme resulting in JP Morgan named as the UK’s fourth top graduate employer from outside the top 10 within four years.  She then joined strategic consulting firm LEK as global head of recruitment, followed by consultancy roles in assessment, development and diversity across a number of industries.  With a young family, Lucy now works freelance and indulges her entrepreneurial ambitions: 10 years ago, Lucy took over a Cotswolds hotel and improved the turnover from £400,000 to over £1 million plus within two years.  She now also runs a not for profit website called neuTrain where professional trainers share their classroom based training materials on line freely.  She is also working on ShadowOpps – a new start up idea to give people practical experience of learning about different jobs by paying to shadow those doing them.

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