Some employees are highly adaptable and learning-oriented and have an eye for sustainable functioning. They have what researchers call a protean orientation, which leads them to take charge of their careers, based on their own personal ambitions. Nimmi Mohandas studied the protean orientation among information technology (IT) engineers in India. She advises organisations to nurture these traits by providing more autonomy, flexibility and skilling opportunities for protean talents.
One day he was hired, and he was over the moon. On another fine day, with no appropriate reasons, he was fired. Devasted and bewildered, he wandered around the job portals. Yet another day, they said they wanted him back with another (compensation) package, so they rehired him.
— Story of Indian IT employee
This hire, fire and then rehire phenomenon, which is becoming prevalent in the information technology (IT) industry has led to the transformation of psychological contracts (the unwritten understanding between employers and employees) into neo-psychological contracts, in which personal and business goals are mutually dependent, a win-win situation. Adapting to such contracts is contributing to the sustainability of organisations and employees’ career alike.
So, apart from macro-economic conditions, why would the new workplace adopt a neo-contract? Impermanence in career and life has led younger employees to have preferences in these two aspects. Employees now give more importance to work-life balance and are taking time for both serious and casual leisure pursuits. Academic researchers attribute this to a growing work mindset that they call the protean career orientation.
The protean career concept was first introduced by Hall (1996) and is defined as a career journey driven by the employee, rather than the organisation, based on individual ambitions (Hall, 2002). The degree to which an individual exhibits a protean orientation differs from person to person and is incumbent on the cognitive component (a set of career values), the behavioural component (a behavioural tendency or propensity to behave in a particular manner) and an interpretative component (a perception of what would be a “good” or “bad” career for oneself). Briscoe et al (2005) have indicated that the career behaviour of protean employees manifested tendencies towards freedom, self-direction and choices based on personal values.
The career ecosystem theory by Baruch (2015) emphasises the importance of macro, meso and micro elements to explain the career behaviour/orientation of individuals. Macro factors in this context are the socio-economic and cultural facets of a region that might impact the labour market. Meso factors are organisation/institution specific factors impacting careers and employment. The micro-aspects of career ecosystems theory emphasise the importance of personal resources that might lead to, or stem out of, a protean career orientation.
Our recent study among Indian IT engineers discusses protean career attitudes, looking specifically into the micro aspects of this framework. The study describes with empirical backing how a protean orientation might lead to the wellbeing of IT workers in the form of enhanced work wellbeing, psychological wellbeing and life wellbeing. Information technology is estimated to contribute with 10% of India’s GDP. It is one of the most dynamic industries in the country, undergoing inconsistent cycles of hire and fire. At times of economic surge, we hear about new recruits hired in thousands. During economic upheavals, employees are fired in similar numbers. It is a unique industry because it allows individuals to explore numerous jobs within and outside a single company as part of their employment structure (Ortega, 2001). The many opportunities in the job market help IT workers create an identity for themselves.
Psychological resources are defined by Hobfoll (2002) “as those entities that are centrally valued in their own right, like self-esteem and self-efficacy, and further act as a means to obtain centrally valued ends”, helping individuals with stress resistance and wellbeing. Resources accumulated over shorter or longer periods ultimately form resource caravans. In our study, we explore the many psychological resources associated with the protean orientation, which is growing among millennial Indian IT employees. Studies have shown the importance of psychological skills along with soft and hard skills to excel in the workplace. These psychological skills strengthen one’s resource caravan (Kirves, 2014) and act as a reservoir for later work or career challenges.
Among the many resources, the most useful for an employee in the workplace and in the labour market during a job search tend to be psychological capital and perceived employability. Luthans et al. (2017) conceptualised psychological capital as “positive appraisal of circumstances and probability for success based on motivated effort and perseverance”. HERO elements (hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism) come to employees’ aid when they go through difficult work situations. This is especially important for a protean employee who makes difficult choices at work or career, thereby creating psychological capital (Donald et al., 2019). A protean talent develops psychological capital as he/she traverses careers through different pathways that might not always be a bed of roses. A career journey chosen by an individual’s value-driven and self-directed approach can present challenges that enhance his/her psychological capital.
One doesn’t act on reality but on the perceptions of reality or a situation (Berntson, 2008). Perceived employability seems to be important as it creates an instinct backed by skill and knowledge to do better at work or to find a new job. Perceived employability is associated with increased job performance, career satisfaction, happiness and wellbeing, which are all indicators of career sustainability. Perceived employability and psychological capital provide a sense of control over the choices and opportunities to influence the surroundings, and they will be inextricably linked to a person’s endurance (Hobfoll et al., 2003). They act as buffers that can protect individuals when they fall back or stumble in their career paths.
Path to career sustainability
Sustainable careers are distinguished by the happiness, productivity and wellbeing employees experience in the workplace and in their lives (De Vos et al., 2020). Extensive research is being carried out in academic circles and the corporate world to make careers more sustainable for the benefit of employees and organisations. Protean talents are highly adaptable and learning-oriented and have an eye for sustainable functioning as far as work is concerned. Organisations could nurture these traits by providing more autonomy, flexibility and skilling opportunities for these talents.
- This blog post is based on Achieving Workplace Wellbeing Among Indian IT Engineers, in Journal of Career Development.
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Outcast India on Unsplash
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