Business Psychology

Article No. 378
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Why Do I Do This?

Research reveals typical career paths for people with a calling.

Meet Peggy. She's a natural. She started her first business in high school doing tech work on her classmates' gadgets. She got a business degree at the nearby university, and she felt called to use her unique gifts to do big things in the world. Now, she's in her first job, and she's glad to have it, but some problems have arisen.

O.K. Let's stop here.

Peggy is about to answer two crucial questions, and her answers will set her on one of three paths that will have a dramatic impact on her life. That's the finding of Kira Schabram from the University of Washington and Sally Maitlis from the University of Oxford. They studied the experience of 21 people employed at animal shelters and 29 people who had given it up. They, too, felt called to their work.

The first question involves the collision between real world problems and a person's view of himself/herself. The question is "Why do I do this?" or "What does this mean for me?" The second question follows naturally from the first, "What do I do now?"

Schabram and Maitlis found all the adults they studied answering the first question in one of three ways. One group sensed a threat to their self-image. Essentially, their answer was "Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm not especially gifted for this calling after all." Schabram and Maitlis used the term "identity" to describe them. This threat to their sense of self was keenly felt. It hurt, and they fought against it. They wanted to preserve a sense of possessing special gifts.

A second group experienced early challenges as evidence that coworkers were ready for and wanted change. Schabram and Maitlis used the term "contribution" to describe these people. Ignorant coworkers needed these "contributors" to teach and lead them toward a brighter future. The third group also felt called to the work but not especially skilled at it. Early problems revealed learning needs and prompted self-criticism, but tasks can be learned, and skills developed. Schabram and Maitlis used the term "practice" to describe this group.

Three groups with separate answers to the same question, and each formed the basis for addressing the next question. "What do I do now?"

People in the identity group, hurting and confused about themselves, experimented in their work roles, often seeking more narrowly defined roles where they could isolate themselves. They also found themselves in frequent conflict with coworkers. People in the contribution group interpreted frustration in teaching and leading ignorant coworkers as a symptom of their low organizational rank. They strove for advancement so they could be boss and run the show. People in the practice group concentrated on improving their own skills. They asked coworkers to help them learn and help them with difficult tasks.

By now, it should be clear where each group is headed. The identity group burned out. They couldn't maintain the effort to preserve their sense of being specially gifted in their current work settings. They left and sought out less demanding roles, but they left with their sense of self shaken and in many cases broken. They were not especially gifted.

The contribution group burned out, too, but for a different reason. They encountered resistance and obstinance and decided that the employment setting was to blame. They were especially gifted, but their skills would have to find another setting for expression. They left the job and the field.

The practice group grew and thrived. They had reached out to others both for help and to help. They became skilled craftsmen/women embedded in a web of relationships with a history of working together and learning together. They stayed, and they couldn't imagine working anywhere else. Their careers were a legacy others followed.

Recall your own emergence into the grown-up world of business, freshly graduated, and ready for new challenges. Now imagine that young, eager, idealistic self listening to the harsh words of dismissal from someone you'd hoped would be a pathway to a brighter future. "Not interested." "No time to talk to you today." "Can't use you." "No." How did you answer question one at that time? Schabram and Maitlis would guess that your answer fell into one of the three categories listed above. Now, recall how you answered question two, and compare the trajectory of your own career with those outlined in Schabram's and Maitlis's study.

Schabram's and Maitlis's findings reveal a self-perpetuating cycle that begins with the answer to the question "Why do I do this?" This answer sets in motion a pattern of understanding, action, new challenges, and back to understandings and actions. If you can place yourself, Schabram's and Maitlis's work also allows you to look ahead.

Do you see exhaustion, burnout, and leaving the field, or a master craftsman/woman enjoying success and broad community support? Now would be a great time to take a look. You may be able to see the future while you still have time to correct it.

Reference: Schabram, Kira and Sally Maitlis (2017) Negotiating the Challenges of a Calling: Emotion and Enacted Sensemaking in Animal Shelter Work. Academy of Management Journal, 60(2), 584-609.

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Keywords: career paths, self identity
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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