Career Decisions: Holding On, Letting Go, and the Space Between

Young woman deep in thought about career transition

In my last post, How to Chart a Successful Career Change, I underlined how making career decisions can represent a complex journey for some individuals. Every day, career professionals witness how professional reflection, reassessment, and “questionings” can trigger a wide range of feelings and states in their clients. Some of the emotions and reactions we witness include hope, excitement, confusion, fear, anxiety, hopelessness, and despair. Not every client who “enters our office door” presents a clear reason for seeking consultation and a readiness to work toward change. The reason is that between holding on to a job that no longer seems to suit and letting go of that position, there often exists an intermediary space; a stage of ambivalence which lasts for varying time periods, depending on the individual.

Two Theoretical Models to Help Clients in the Ambivalent Stage

This intermediary or ambivalent stage can sometimes be a difficult one to assess and assist with. As guidance counsellor and doctor of education Jacques Limoges states in his book Stratégies de maintien au travail (Work Maintenance Strategies), willingness to hold on to a less than ideal position — whether it be at work or in other life spheres — is not the dominant value or mainstream position in western societies of the 21st century. In a culture and time period characterized by urgency and immediacy (ready-to-wear, ready-to-eat, and such), people are more often than not encouraged to let go, shift, and change. Case in point; try a Google search to see how many hits you get for articles and videos on “the courage to let go” or “how to get out of your comfort zone.”

But Limoges reminds us that a career shift that is precipitated by an impulsive decision and a lack of foresight can often be more detrimental (psychologically, financially, etc.) for an individual than the extension of the intermediary or “in-between” stage, supported by adaptative work maintenance strategies. Adaptative? Yes, because, as the author explains, in certain contexts, maintenance at work can lead to beneficial outcomes such as trial-and-error-based learning, ongoing maturation, development of self-control skills and a growth mindset, skills and knowledge transfer, and the self-satisfaction gained through sustained effort and perseverance.

Therefore, the fundamental question career professionals face is; How do we support clients seeking help with their professional doubts and questionings without rushing them to implement change?

In my practice as a guidance counsellor, I have often relied on the following two theoretical models to help clients understand their position on the “holding on / letting go” continuum.

Model 1: The Theory of Work Adjustment

Several articles and statements about this theory have been published by Minnesota Studies in Vocational Rehabilitation. Chapter 43 of the recently published book Career Theories and Models at Work: Ideas for Practice also focuses on the topic. Essentially, this model helps us better understand and visualize (by its “Process Model”), the interaction between an individual and their work environment. It underlines the conditions in which maintenance or “tenure” is acceptable and possible for both parties or systems.

The theory’s main precept is:

“The (work) environment and the individual must continue to meet each other’s requirements for the interaction to be maintained. The degree to which the requirements of both are met may be called correspondence.” This correspondence results in “tenure, the principal indicator of work adjustment.”

Career professionals interested in learning more about this theory’s framework and subtleties — to expand their set of tools for working with ambivalent clients — can check out the links provided here. In my view, the Theory of Work Adjustment’s Process Model can be used as a valuable roadmap to identify and help situate clients at the crossroad in their career journey.

Model 2: Limoges’ Maintenance at Work Approach

Jacques Limoges’ book precisely addresses the continuum between holding on and letting go of a job position. In this intermediary zone, individuals usually lean toward the “holding on” or “maintenance” pole. However, the author describes two different dynamics – sort of slippery slopes – which can precipitate the transition to an inevitable and necessary “letting go” or “shift” stage.

  • Exhaustion: a prolonged imbalance in the individual and work environment interaction in which the employee deploys a significant amount of time and energy in their tasks and yet still feels like they can’t meet the organization’s expectations. It usually leads to very high stress levels for the individual who, if the imbalance becomes more persistent and prolonged, will eventually experience different symptoms such as: a racing/anxious mind, insomnia, fatigue, hypertension, panic attacks, burn-out, and/or depression.
  • Obsolescence: If exhaustion is characterized by an ineffectual over-investment strategy, obsolescence represents the opposite dynamic in which an individual progressively disengages and disinvests in their work. This can take the form of an “autopilot” way of living and working, boredom, prolonged break times, absenteeism, lack of curiosity and interest in updating one’s skills and knowledge, etc. Again, if this under-challenged state persists, the employee will grow more and more bored, frustrated, and unsatisfied, until they feel “professionally dead” and just can’t keep rolling along.

So, how do we start the conversation with our clients to assess their work maintenance strategies and their adaptative or detrimental results? Limoges suggests that professionals can begin by asking questions such as:

  • What are your gains and losses in this job position to this day?
  • What are your joys and pains in this job position to this day?
  • In this intermediary and maintenance zone, what do you get/receive (in terms of gratification, recognition, work conditions) and what do you give away (in terms of time, energy spent)? Is there an obvious imbalance between those two sides of the equation?

Are You Prepared to Help Clients in “The Space Between?”

As the world of work becomes ever more complex, with some careers on the brink of extinction while new job titles are just emerging, professional questioning will likely come up more than once or twice in a person’s working life. Career professionals who wish to increase their knowledge or revisit career development foundations to assist workers in the fourth industrial revolution can do so by looking at the valuable certification programs and courses offered by Career Professionals of Canada:

Catherine Carbonneau-Bergeron is a guidance counsellor with more than a decade of experience in career guidance. Passionate and curious, she is a devoted clinician, yet still immensely attracted to the research field and eager to share the very latest findings regarding education, career, workplace integration, and well-being.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

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