Career Anchors are the characteristics of a role, job or career that individuals are drawn to. They usually align with an individual’s underlying perception of their talents and skills, motives and needs and attitudes and values. A career anchors activity can help individuals discover their anchors.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Career Anchors

Each of us has specific things that we’re looking for in our careers. These are the things that we believe will bring us happiness, fulfillment and the opportunity to succeed. These factors can be thought of as career anchors. They are built on our understanding of our own skills and abilities, our personal motives and life circumstances and our underlying attitudes and values. We can develop our understanding of them through a career anchors activity.

By developing a better understanding of what our underlying career anchors are, we’ll make more informed and better long term decisions at key points in our careers. Similarly, as a leader or coach, understanding the career anchors of those we work with can help us provide them with better guidance

To help with this process of self discovery, we include a brief activity below. The activity is quite straight forward, though it takes a little time and concentration to do it well. While the activity is designed for individuals. It can, though, also be used with groups. Using it with groups takes more effort, awareness and effective facilitation if it is to be done well.

Career Anchors Activity Steps

  • Complete the “Career Orientations Inventory” activity. Reflect on each of the 40 statements and scoring them from “1 – Never true for me” to “6 – Always true for me”
  • Review the statements and identify the three that you agree with most. Add an additional 4 points to each of these statements.
  • Transfer the scores for each of the statements to the scoring template, which groups the scores into eight, predetermined “Career Anchor” categories.

Outcomes: Eight Career Anchors

There are several activities that you can complete which will help you discover what your career anchors are. You can read more about these activities in Edgar Schein’s book, “Career Anchors”.

Ultimately, under this framework, there are eight different career anchor categories that can be important for people. We consider each of them below.

1. Technical and Functional Competence

People with high scores here like to be really good at specific things, to be experts and have specialist knowledge. They derive satisfaction from facing challenges related to their skills, doing things others can’t do and being seen as a specialist. They’re not usually interested in managing others, particularly outside of their specialist areas.

2. General Managerial Competence

People with high scores here want to manage and lead others. They seek responsibility and accountability and the challenge of solving problems and working through others. They seek career steps that help them progress to more senior roles where they can have broader responsibility and more generalist, less technical accountabilities. Ideally they seek to manage cross-functional teams.

3. Autonomy and Independence

People with high scores here value having control and freedom over how they work. They value making their own decisions and doing things their own way. These people seek flexibility and freedom in their careers and may turn down the opportunity to progress if they feel these core requirements are at risk. They often like to work alone and may seek to run their own business to ensure autonomy.

4. Security and Stability

People with high scores here value certainty and seek to avoid risk in relation to their careers. They often value security over the longevity of their role and their salary and associated benefits such as pensions. They may also seek stability over their job’s demands, hours, and broader team structures. Individuals who value security and stability may turn down risky promotions for certainty in a current role.

5. Entrepreneurial Creativity

People with high scores here seek the cut and thrust, creativity and ownership of running their own business. They often value pace, variety and challenge and can get bored easily. While they want to run their own business, they often differ from those seeking autonomy and independence in that their drivers are different and they often want to collaborate and share their workloads.

6. Service and Dedication to a Cause

People with high scores here often value helping others very highly. They often derive more fulfillment from their roles through helping others, than through using their core skills, leading others or being autonomous. Individuals drawn to service or dedication to a cause roles may wish to work in charitable or public sector organizations, or in “people” focused functions such as Human Resources.

7. Pure Challenge

People with high scores here may be somewhat agnostic about exactly what they do, as long as there are big problems to solve and challenges to overcome. They often seek the stimulation that comes with difficult challenges and may get bored easily. They may also have varied careers as they change roles looking for new problems to solve and challenges to overcome. 

8. Lifestyle

People with high scores here often value their lifestyles more than their careers. They often “work to live” as opposed to “live to work” and their “work-life-balance” is highly important to them. They will often seek flexibility in their work to let them achieve their personal life goals, and are often willing to sacrifice career outcomes to retain a better lifestyle (for example turning down a promotion that would mean more hours).

Learning More

Understanding our career anchors may help us understanding our career drivers, personal values and motivation. It may also help us develop our self-awareness and character.

Having a clear understanding of who we are and our values is also essential if we are to embody authentic leadership. You can learn more about authentic leadership in our podcast on the subject:

The World of Work Project View

Obtaining fulfilling and rewarding work that is aligned to one’s underlying set of values is a goal that many people aspire to. Individuals often seek this for themselves, and leaders should seek to help their team members achieve this type of goal.

Fulfilling, rewarding and value aligned work can help individuals feel they are using their strengths and being true to themselves. This, in turn, helps increase their health, well-being and contribution to their organization.

There are several tools that help individuals understand their personal values and develop their self-awareness, of which this is one. This specific tool is easy to use, can be self delivered and is helpful to both individuals and leaders. It’s particularly useful as a starting position from which to base career decisions and conversations.

That said, there are many times in life when it’s not possible to focus on this type of goal. Sometimes the priority for all of us must be to simply pay the bills and keep the show on the road.

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The original work behind this topic was completed by the former MIT profession, Edgar Schein. You can read more about it specifically in the most recent edition of his book: “Career Anchors”. 

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