By Peter Kelleher
A fundamental human desire is for continuity, for circumstances that allow us to make certain assumptions about the world and ourselves from day to day without the need to be constantly re-inventing the wheel. English social commentator G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “When one begins to think of man as a shifting and alterable thing, it is always easy for the strong and crafty to twist him into new shapes for all kinds of unnatural purposes.”
Nonetheless, these days we are subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda to the effect that everything is in flux, that all is change, even change itself.
Richard Sennett, in his essay The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, appeals to the fundamental pre-condition for continuity in human affairs, which, in the individual case is expressed by the ethical term “character”. He mentions Horace’s definition of character as a condition that depends upon the connections a person has with the world.
“How,” he then asks, “do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment?”
It is into this context that we find the introduction of a term specially coined for managers as persons: “anchoring”. What circumstances have called forth this term? Is it worth pursuing, or is it merely a further burden on the manager’s already overloaded shoulders?
Edgar H. Schein, who devised the method, defines the career anchor as: “a combination of perceived areas of competence, motives and values that you would not give up; it represents your real self. Without knowledge of your anchor, outside incentives might tempt you into situations or jobs that subsequently are not satisfactory because you feel that this is not really me.”
Briefly, anchoring is a form of self-evaluation that is meant to allow you to get to know your core strengths and so enable you to manage and direct your career accordingly. It takes a form of 40 questions about your aspirations, self-knowledge, outlook, preferences and ambitions, followed by a one-on-one interview between you and a trusted peer. The interview’s 18 principal questions are meant to draw out your actual working history and allow you to see the sometimes hidden motivations behind the decisions you’ve made during your career.
According to the weighted answers you give to the 40 questions in the first part, you will find salient characteristics in your decision-making that have affected the direction your career has taken and can take in the future. These characteristics are described under eight broad categories: technical/functional competence; general managerial competence; autonomy/independence; security/stability; entrepreneurship/creativity; service/dedication to a cause; pure challenge; and lifestyle.
To describe fully each category would be to enter into prolixity. A short description of a single category must suffice. If your answers to the questionnaire would have your major area of competency in the general management category, you would need to be strong in analytical and synthesising abilities and able to solve problems under conditions of uncertainty. You need supervisory and leadership skills; you need the skill of choosing well those whose expertise you can rely on as you become further removed from direct technical knowledge; you need to be stimulated by personal interactions rather than debilitated by them, and be able to take difficult decisions without guilt or shame; you need work that gives you responsibility and is challenging and varied; you insist on high levels of remuneration and good benefit packages; you measure yourself against your performance and results; you value highly as signs of success that you are selected for promotions; and you value status symbols such as large offices and company cars.
Doubtless, some readers will identify with many or all of the above factors; others may challenge them and others still take exception to some of them. However, the questions about this method are more fundamental than whether it appeals to the stereotyping inclination in all of us.
Therefore, before entering on a critique of the method, an analogy may be helpful. In much management and organisational literature, the repetition of terms such as “continuous change” and “flexibility” and “adaptation” and “seeking new paths” and “reconfiguring” sparks the thought of a living creature. In the natural world, a living creature is recognised as such by its movement, its growth, respiration, its transformations, in the absence of which it is normal to apply the non-technical term “dead”.
Those writers and thinkers who recognise this fact and apply it to situations of human endeavor, such as business and management, do well so long as they keep the analogy within its useful borders. They would do even better if they thought a little longer on the natural world and recognised another undisputed possession of the living creature: a condition for life described by the technical term “homeostasis”.
Homeostasis (a fancy term for “similar state”) is that condition of a living system that keeps it in equilibrium. Continuous maintenance and distribution of fuel and, via a complex of feedback loops that respond to the environment, allow the system to adjust and adapt as required.
A living creature is only ever static as a prelude to decomposition.
Two conditions are, therefore, required for a living creature to continue to be: change and sameness. If it is to survive – if it is to continue to be the same thing it is – it must undergo changes. Its very continued sameness is dependent upon its changeableness.
If you stand in front of your bookshelf, for instance, you will note that both you and the bookshelf are doing much the same thing: standing. However, it is an illusion in so far as the bookshelf is doing no such thing as standing: it is merely there, subject to gravity and to your whim should you decide to push it over. But stand as still and stiff as you are able and there is nothing “just there” in your stance to correspond to that of the bookshelf. Indeed, the thousands of nervous impulses taking place within the muscles and tendons telling them to make the milliards of tiny compensatory movements associated with maintaining that static condition would stretch the best computers today to detect and measure. You are not standing still at all. That, too, is an illusion.
Nor is your career a static result of genes, education, experience, interest and ability.
Marcus Letcher, a Melbourne-based career consultant and author of the book Making Your Future Work, makes the point that, in terms of career, these days there is “no thread but a centre”. It is too diffuse, there is too much to a person to be anchored.
The purpose of anchoring is that, in the world of the new capitalism, each of us needs to take control of our own destinies. However, as Sennett writes in The Corrosion of Character: “The new capitalism is an often illegible regime of power.” Moreover, it is a matter of concern the way in which career values are isolated from the life values people hold.
Dr Brian Costello, a practicing psychotherapist who for many years has been profiling job applicants for employers both here and in the United States, sees this isolation as a severely distorting factor in testing of this kind.
“Who is testing the test?” he asks. “There is a danger when psychology is popularised and put to uses it ought not to be. The concepts that underlie such testing are derived from Jungian psychology; but when these are separated from the entire context in which they have been developed they can do a lot of damage.”
When asked if it were not so that everyone has an aptitude, his answer is a surprising and emphatic “No!”
“Are we to understand that the man cleaning out the toilets has a special aptitude for this work?” he asks. Rather, he sees it as a matter of people being able to do the things they think they are capable of (having taken into account physical and circumstantial limits), the limits of which are self-imposed and may be adversely affected by the sort of testing anchoring offers.
But, even within the context of career, the act of isolating a single competency through taking the test contains within it the seeds of underestimating other competencies.
Letcher is restrainedly critical of this tendency. He agrees that there is an inherent danger in self-testing in that it can result in the self-imposition of a limiting culture on a person.
He sees a tendency in the world of work to compartmentalise workers into creative and commodified categories. He says: “The danger when people get commodified is we will end up benchmarking ourselves against Bangladesh in a race to the bottom.
“Creative work is what companies need. Automation has made production practically a given. Enterprise and innovation are all we’ve got left to create competitive advantage.”
He sees behind this development the fact that many big companies are organising themselves to act as if they were small companies. “They realise that their culture of conformity stultified creativity. In such a culture, you don’t get risk-takers; you get self-limiters. You get the old industrial-style employees, rather than people who can create value,” he says.
By industrial-style employees, Letcher means the nine-to-five process workers, those who follow orders and seldom step outside the mechanical exigencies of repetitive functions; those for whom automation has meant unemployment, for whom there are now few jobs left in existence.
So, no one disputes that the world of work is one in which creativity and innovation are non-negotiable. The question is whether self-testing is a step towards allowing people to see the latent creativity within themselves.
Letcher sees the self-testing solution as a double-edged sword. “There are strategies people can use, but they are usually self-created. I would issue a caveat against relying too heavily on this prescriptive sort of stuff.”
He explains that all the employment growth areas are in hybrid disciplines: multimedia, hospitality, infotainment. The consequence is that people who are inclined to compartmentalise themselves will fail to look beyond their areas of “core competency” and will simply not see the opportunities.
Rather than self-testing, Letcher sees more value in the tried method of network development. “The network gives competitive advantage. Other people can complement your abilities and expertise.”
He adds that such tests can be useful because people are so close to themselves, that they can’t always see the big picture of themselves. “People are so pressured these days they don’t have time for reflection.”
Letcher likens the process to the creative destruction of capitalism, the continual dying and rebirth that it implies in making adjustments to the market. He talks about the new “Three Rs”: resilience, resourcefulness and reflection. “These are the keys to self managing your career. Building a career is a matter of self-construction. In the past, generally you got into a situation in which you were done unto. Now, what you have to do is notice the building blocks upon which to build your career.”
Sennett’s comments are relevant here. Explaining the inextricable link between the new capitalism and flexibility, he compares the idea of career -“a life-long channel for one’s economic pursuits”- to the original meaning of the word “job”.
He writes: “In English of the fourteenth century [job] meant a lump or piece of something which could be carted around. Flexibility today brings back this arcane sense of the job, as people do lumps of labor, pieces of work, over the course of a life-time.”
Although there is much debate about getting the “right person for the right job”, it is an assumption seldom examined that person and fit are always desirable. The very raison d’etre of psychological testing is that person and fit are always desirable.
However, this is either a truism that scarcely merits the mentioning, or it is a contradiction, an attempt to have your cake and eat it. It has to be kept in mind that, when it comes to career creation and filling positions, what is sought is not an inert object that fits up a space but a dynamic entity that fulfils a function and resolves difficulties, makes decisions – often with limited precedence and partial information. We work because there is a job that needs doing, not because there is a place into which we can be slotted and never heard from again.
Reverting to the image of the bookshelf, a bookshelf certainly does a job by doing nothing. However, it is doubtful that any employer would deliberately seek an employee with those qualities. But this is precisely what the rhetoric of “person and fit” is aimed at achieving.
Rather an employer is looking for a person in whom the feedback mechanisms are functioning at their highest pitch, in whom all the senses and muscles are constantly taking feedback and making little adjustments. That is to say, a person who is most alive will respond most readily to the challenge – neither shaping themselves to the hole nor forcing the hole to admit the square peg.
Perhaps the central question each of us should be required to answer truly at an interview is: “Do you want to do this job, or do you just want to have a job?”
Such tests as anchoring are an attempt to accommodate the unpredictability that is now more than ever, under the names of “flexibility” and “creativity”, a requirement in the worker. And, by definition, unpredictability cannot be prescribed; it can only be described.
A prerequisite for describing an event is reflecting on it. And it is always the whole person that reflects. Which returns us to the distorting mirror that such testing can be when it treats the entire person only as a working entity.
Dr Costello says that leisure is “what you are”. It is most certainly not what you do when you kill time watching television or at the pub. Conversely, it can be what you do at work.
In accommodating the whole person in our consideration of the working person, a question worth reflecting on is: what is the irreducible unit of society – the individual, the family, the corporation, or the nation? The jury is still out on this question. But to the extent that our answer to this question reflects a more or less collectivist tone of mind we will be attracted to the idea of “anchoring”.
In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer is locked up in a hotel room as a member of a jury struggling to reach a unanimous verdict. Homer has stood out against the majority, not because he believes the accused is innocent but because, for so long as they cannot reach unanimity, he gets to stay in the hotel for free. It is in this sense that the jury is still out on the above social question.