Career shocks – an expected but ignored shock may be worse than the totally unexpected

In English

“There is only one kind of shock worse than the totally unexpected: the expected for which one has refused to prepare.”

The quote came into my mind when I was discussing with my former colleague and friend during Easter. She believes that even a bad change in the workplace is better than no change at all since it works as a wake-up call demanding people to readjust and develop themselves. It is said that modern careers are dynamic, boundaryless, and above all unpredictable. However, it is entirely possible and even humane to lull ourselves into thinking that once we have reached the desired position in our career, the linear path of development and advancement will continue.

My research examines the effects of career shocks on individual career mobility and success. The construct of a career shock does not have a unified definition in literature, but it is often described as an unexpected event that activates people to think about their careers.  Therefore, shocks are considered as antecedents of a career change. The topic of my dissertation derives from my personal work experience even though the focus has changed quite a lot since the start of my doctoral studies. Still, the context of the research has remained the same and my study examines two different types of career shocks, layoffs and outsourcing, situations that generally increase employee mobility. I have experienced both during my career and I am very interested in what happens to careers after these events. The significance and impact of environmental factors and events for career paths as well as career shocks are trending topics also in recent international career research.

Despite past research, suitable measures for career shocks are yet to be established and tested widely. However, the literature suggests that there are multiple features that could be formulated into scales and tested empirically. These features include predictability, valence, controllability, frequency, duration, and source of the shock. For example, layoffs may be predicted by employees that have experienced them before. However, despite successful prediction, the effects of layoffs may not be anticipated nor personally controllable. Besides the duration of the shock event, I am also interested in the duration of the consequences of the event for individual careers.

It is we individuals that determine how we feel about career shock events. As Mary Renault wrote in the Charioteer, an expected but ignored shock may well be worse than the totally unexpected. The frequency and duration of the career shock may be beyond our control, but our own actions and attitudes can have a significant effect on the controllability of the event and the overall consequences for our career trajectories. Hence, we should be prepared and anticipate events that cause us to rethink and possibly reshape our careers.

With shock events, we cannot be prepared for all possible scenarios, but past research suggests that having protean and boundaryless career attitudes can enhance our resilience in the face of adversity. My friend proposed that the best way to prepare for change is agility and being able to quickly adapt to new roles and goals. To me, these capabilities seem to be related to the protean career attitude of self-directedness. Individuals that have high protean career orientation are more well-suited to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Past research has presented some evidence suggesting that negative career shocks can have positive career outcomes as well. That would indicate that career shocks may, in fact, also be beneficial for our career development and at best, career shocks may turn into career opportunities.

Please feel free to leave feedback in the comments below or in Twitter @Katjalina.

Katjalina Jyllilä
MSc (Econ), PhD Student
School of Management
Human Resource Management

Katjalina is writing her doctoral thesis on the impacts of negative career shocks on individual career mobility and career success.
Personally, she tries to cope with the effects of shock events with ENFP+ personality, flexible attitude, and a good insurance deal.




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