Edgar Schein’s Career Anchors – Theories Every Careers Adviser Should Know

In my previous two posts in this series I have looked at a foundational type theory of careers identity (John Holland) and foundational construct/ developmental theory (Donald Super). In this third post we’re going look at the ideas of Edgar Schein who in some ways aims to bring the two ideas together in his Career Anchors theory.

Edgar Schein is an American business thinker in the area of organisational development. His Career Anchors theory aims to discuss the way we personally construct meaning out of work and organises this into eight main types. A Career Anchor aims to bring together our perception of our skills, values, motives and needs into a single statement. It is important to note despite being a type there are a number of major differences between Schein’s approach and Holland’s

  1. Schein does not aim to match people to roles on the basis of their anchor, it is just a reflective lens.
  2. Schein focuses on how we get meaning from work, not just our skills (interestingly his technical expert anchor is very similar to Holland’s theoretical perspective).
  3. Schein recognises a greater focus on our subjective view rather than claiming to objectively measure the self as Holland does.

Schein’s anchors are as follows.

  • Technical/Functional competence

This refers to someone who is motivated by doing what they are good and aims to grow in expertise in an area. They enjoy doing tasks for the sake of using their skill.

  • General Managerial competence

This refers to someone who want to lead others. They like decision making and motivating others. Often they naturally take positions of leadership in a situation.

  • Autonomy/Independence

This refers to someone who is weary of outside control and wants a feeling of autonomy and independence. They tend to avoid organisational structures and seek to work alone or in situation which they can control.

  • Security/Stability

This is someone who is motivated by maintaining a “business-as-usual” approach to work. They try and avoid uncertainty and threat to themselves and their life. They tend to avoid risk taking such as entrepreneurship and freelancing.

  • Entrepreneurial Creativity

This is someone who is motivated by creating something new which is their own. They are often bringing new ideas to the table and trying to develop new perspectives or items. This can be in a entrepreneurial context setting up their own venture or intrapreneurial, working on the inside of an existing organisation to change it.

  • Service/Dedication to a cause

This is someone who wants a role that achieves something that they see as being of value. This may be tied to a vague notion of “helping people” or may be attached to a very particular cause they feel passionately about such as global warming.

  • Pure Challenge

This is someone who views success as an end in itself. They are motivated by success, promotion and recognition. They are very goal focused and focused on a sense of progression, competing against others and succeeding.

  • Lifestyle

This is very much mirrors Super’s approach to career and describes someone who takes a broad perspective on life. They will be concerned with work-life balance, the affect of work on other areas of life and relationships and may put up with dissatisfying work because it enables other things they view as being of value.



Schein does offer a questionnaire to go with his theory but I personally feel that the questionnaire is not necessary. I always question how well people answers these sort of questions and if it isn’t better asking people which category they most associate and why. Still that said I feel Schein’s real strength with clients is how he produces a vocab around what we want out of our careers. There is a strength to types in that they offer greater clarity while constructs offer us greater personalisation. Taken Schein as offering vocab around our values is very helpful. Similarly focusing on values over mere abilities as lots of matching models (e.g. Holland) do I also think is powerful and opens up new avenues for clients. Finally I think the eight areas in Schein’s theory are pretty exhaustive.

As you can see from the above I am discussing a modified version of Schein based on a reflective vocab rather than a test and state model so from this you can conclude I have some issues with Schein as is. That said I feel there are lots of advantages of Schein as discussed above.





4 thoughts on “Edgar Schein’s Career Anchors – Theories Every Careers Adviser Should Know

  1. Thanks for this article on Schein. Reading his achors I can see similarities in Myers Briggs and Kiersey
    as well. I agree with your critique that “focusing on values over mere abilities as lots of matching models (e.g. Holland)” is “powerful and opens up new avenues for client.” Values are integral to a person, and although the way a person lives out their values depending on the stage they find themselves in their life (which is why I like Super’s Life Stage/Rainbow Theory) the values tend to remain the same. Values, for me, has proven to be a much more solid anchor.

    I am very much enjoying your posts and look forward to the learning and thinking to come.

  2. Hi Tom, thanks for the thought and the links. Just a tiny suggestion for assisting your future readership: would you mind including the full APA refs? Just in case we don’t have access to the URLs or the URL changes?

  3. Another great post Tom. I’ve never used Schein’s Career Anchors in a self-awareness workshop before, but you’ve inspired me to go it a go, and without the questionnaire too:)

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