Schein's Career Anchors

Understanding What Inspires You in Your Career

Schein's Career Anchors - Understanding What Inspires You in Your Career

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Identify your dominant career anchor.

It used to be that once you decided on a career, you stayed in that career until you retired. Not so anymore: The notion of lifetime employment has been replaced with lifetime employability.

This means that you can't rely on your employers to maintain your employment: You alone are responsible for your career progression and development.

Career management and planning in this environment is a challenge. So that you remain satisfied and fulfilled by the work you are doing, you need to adjust your career development activities accordingly.

Career development is no longer only about gaining the skills and knowledge you need to move up within one company. Career development today is about achieving flexibility and continuously evaluating and developing your skills in order to remain employable and fulfilled over the long term, regardless of who you are working for, and what industry you are working in.

To achieve this level of flexibility, you need to have a very strong sense of who you are and what you want from your work. Not everyone is motivated by the same thing, and our ambitions vary greatly. Some people thrive on being creative and innovative whereas others prefer stability and continuity. Challenge and constant simulation may be important to one person, while creating a work/life balance is paramount to another.

So, to effectively manage your career, you need to know more than what you enjoy doing: You need to understand WHY you like to do it. You need to figure out what the underlying characteristics of the work are that make the task enjoyable, interesting and stimulating to you.

To help people answer this question, Edgar Schein, a specialist in organizational psychology and career dynamics, identified eight "career anchors."

Understanding the Theory

Schein's theory is that everyone has a “dominant career anchor” and that by identifying your particular career anchor, you can determine the careers and roles that will provide the most satisfaction. For example, if “service” is your career anchor, then you could choose from a wide range of career options that allow you to serve others. If your preference is to “manage”, you can manage people in a variety of industries and across many types of jobs.

Schein has identified eight career anchors, or themes, that define a person's preference for one type of work environment over another. The idea is that once you have determined your dominant theme, you can then identify the types of positions that give you the greatest satisfaction, and plan your career accordingly.

The eight anchors/themes are:

1. Technical/Functional

These people are motivated by being really good at something (here, “technical” does not mean “technology related”, rather it means being a highly skilled professional or expert in a particular field.) People with this anchor thrive on skills improvement and enjoy challenging environments where they can demonstrate their expertise.

The type of work these people seek can be in any specialty, industry, or organization. The key is that they need to be able to showcase their talents regularly. Opportunities to teach and mentor others are particularly attractive to Technical/Functional workers.

2. General Managerial

In contrast to the Technical/Functional people, General Managerial people view specialization as limiting. These people don't want to be the experts: They want to have experts working for them. They enjoy delegating, training, problem solving, directing and dealing with people. These people tend to be analytical and have well developed interpersonal skills.

General Managerial types can be found across all industries and organizational types and the keys to their motivation are leadership, responsibility and collaboration.

3. Autonomy/Independence

These people prefer to work in environments where they can make their own rules, set their own standards, and work independent of others. They want to control the work they do from start to finish and they want to be recognized for what they have accomplished: All by themselves.

People with an anchor in Autonomy/Independence are best suited for positions where they are given a set of expectations and then left to accomplish them. Good career choices include consulting and contract or project work.

4. Security/Stability

These people are the risk avoiders. They prefer calm, stable, predictable environments and are satisfied when they perform their job competently. They love to work in highly structured organizations where the rules and expectations are clear. If they had a choice, these people would be the ones who stay with the same employer until they retire.

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Security/Stability seekers are often found in large, centralized companies and in government organizations. The type of work they do is less important than what the job offers in terms of pay, benefits and a stable organizational culture.

5. Entrepreneurial Creativity

People with this dominant anchor are inventive, creative, and energetic. They express their creativity by starting new businesses (entrepreneurs) or spearheading new projects and new directions for the organization they work for. These people value ownership and, unlike those with Autonomy/Independence preferences, they enjoy working with others and gathering the talent they need to see their dream or creation through to fruition.

Many of the people who prefer Entrepreneurial Creativity are business owners and wealth is often a measure of success for them. The work environment for people with this anchor must be dynamic, as they get bored very easily. These people get restless if they are not creating something.

6. Service/Dedication to a Cause

This anchor is characterized by the desire to serve others. People in this category are motivated by work that reflects their set of core values even if that work does not relate directly to their talents. They put the purpose of their work ahead of the work itself. They often view their work as an extension of who they are and what they stand for.

These people are found in the helping professions and in not-for-profit organizations. The public service sector is attractive as are helping professions within organizations (HR, counseling, nursing).

7. Pure Challenge

These people thrive on problem solving and meeting challenges. They are very competitive and view obstacles as opportunities to test themselves and see how well they perform. "Entrepreneurial Creativity" types get bored easily, but "Pure Challenge" people must have constant change in order to stay motivated. These people will invariably have more than one career in their lifetime and often change jobs frequently.

The work environment that suits Pure Challenge people best is one where competition and individual effort are strongly encouraged. Sales positions typically fit this profile as do jobs where there is extreme pressure to perform.

8. Lifestyle

This person realizes that work is but one portion of his/her life.

The ability to balance work, family and leisure is critically important and they will choose a position that enables them to achieve this balance. They turn down opportunities that will get in the way of other parts of their life. They often take extended leaves from their jobs in order to travel or perform volunteer work.

Lifestyle people “work to live” and they seek organizations that provide a relaxed, easy-going culture. They are also commonly found in high turnover type positions or in part-time jobs where they work just long enough to make the money they need to fund their next adventure.

From "Career Anchors: Discovering Your Real Values" by Edgar H. Schein. © 1990. Reproduced with permission of John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

How to Use the Tool

"Schein's Career Anchors" gives useful guidance when you're preparing a career development plan. By comparing yourself, your values, and your motivations with the main anchors, you can get a much better sense of the type of job you will gain the most satisfaction from. Instead of trying to fit yourself into a career, Schein's model offers a way of identifying careers or roles that fits you.

The following steps show you how you can use Schein's model to think about your career development:

  1. List the positions you have held in your career in the past and, any you currently hold in a table like the one shown below.
Position Values and Motivators Positive
Positive Negative
  1. In the next column, write down the characteristics of each job that you liked most. Think about what you valued and what motivated you. Did you enjoy certain tasks, the culture, the organization's goals, the people, the hours?
  2. Now think about the characteristics of each job or role you disliked or found demotivating. List these in the third column. These are your “negative values and demotivators”.
  3. Now review the descriptions of Schein's Eight Career Anchors, above. Which of these most closely describes your positive values and motivators? Which most closely described your negative values and motivators?
  4. Analyze your lists for patterns and common positive and negative characteristics and matching anchors. Which anchor or anchors appear to be dominant for you? Be open to surprises. Sometimes the anchor you “felt” you possessed when reading the descriptions is not the most indicative of your true values and drivers.

    Often there are two or three anchors that could hold the top spot. Use your judgment, re-read the descriptions, and choose the best-fit dominant ones for the values and motivators you have identified.

  5. Once you have identified your dominant anchor or anchors, you can use this knowledge to help formulate your career development plan, set goals in your career or analyze problems or opportunities that you have in your current position.


Bear in mind that different jobs and situations bring forward different behaviors and different dominant anchors. For example, people early in their careers may not have management opportunities, and may therefore relate most closely to Technical/Functional anchors. Later on they may, for example, switch to a General Managerial anchor. And if life priorities change, they may identify most closely with a Lifestyle anchor.

Don't be too rigid with this theory: Use it for guidance, and as one of the inputs to your career development plan.

Key Points

"Schein's Career Anchors" is one of a number of well respected tools that can help you find direction in your career. Use the knowledge it gives you to think about the development of your career, and as a starting point for planning your career.

By understanding what underpins your success and job satisfaction, you will be in a much better position to adapt yourself to a changing world, and develop a career that gives you true satisfaction and fulfillment.


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