How Employees Can Improve Their Career Trajectories

Topic(s): motivation
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2012)
Article: Future Work Selves: How Salient Hoped-For Identities Motivate Proactive Career Behaviors
Authors: K. Strauss, M.A. Griffin, S.K. Parker
Reviewed by: Lauren A. Wood, M.S.

In the recent past, organizations were primarily responsible for managing their employees’ career trajectories. However, with changes to the psychological contract (the unwritten reciprocal relationship between an employer and employee), employees are taking the lead in defining and determining their own career paths. And, as a result, the increasing popularity of boundaryless careers, job hopping, and self-directed lateral moves have lead to a new norm of non-linear career trajectories in many industries.


Since employees need to actively form their own careers to “get ahead” in today’s workplace, researchers are interested in understanding the motivational factors that cause some employees and not others to engage in career-expanding behaviors. Accordingly, researchers (Strauss et al., 2012), conducted studies investigating the idea of future work selves as motivational mechanisms. Pulling from research on “possible selves,” future work selves are an employee’s representation(s) of future work-related hopes and goals. So, the employee’s idea of what his/her future could be like serves as the motivation to engage in career-expanding and proactive skill-building activities—the more salient the image of the future work self, the greater the motivation to engage in these behaviors.


The researchers tested the future work selves concept in three studies. The first, confirmed that the concept of future work self salience is distinct from other career concepts (e.g., future orientation, career identity, career aspirations, proactive career behavior). In follow-up longitudinal study, they determined that the more salient an employee’s representation of his/her future work self, the more likely he/she was to engage in proactive and career expanding behaviors. Taking this a step further, in the last study, the authors showed that the more elaborate (e.g., detailed, complex, clearly articulated) the future work self concept, the even greater the likelihood for proactive career behavior.


Taken together, the results demonstrate the power of future thinking. By conducting representations of what the future could hold, employees are self-motivated to achieve these career aspirations. Employees wanting to get ahead should construct elaborate, yet realistic, images of where they want to be and who they want to become, thus, making their own future work selves more salient. Additionally, by opting for training and other career building opportunities that are in line with future work goals, employees will help make strides toward achieving these future work selves. To increase proactive, skill expanding behaviors, employers should encourage this future thinking by holding coaching sessions, providing feedback on performance, and highlighting the gaps in employee skill/experience holding them back from future work aspirations.


Strauss, K., Griffin, M.A., Parker, S.K. (2012). Future work selves: How salient hoped-for identities motivate proactive career behaviors, Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 580-598.