Chaos Theory and implications for HR practices

This article describes a theory of career development called the “Chaos Theory of Careers”. This theory is fast gaining momentum in vocational guidance circles but is yet to find its way into main-stream HR theory or practice. In response to this theory, we believe that forward-thinking HR practitioners will be challenged to make some fundamental changes to their current processes.

A number of years ago if you had sought advice from a vocational psychologist, chances are they would have administered a number of tests before anointing you with your ideal career. “Thou shalt be an accountant!” the psychologist might have said, and you would leave the office, enroll in a bookkeeping course and go to sleep with a new sense of purpose and clarity (or so it was hoped). This approach certainly worked for a number of people. It gave certainty to the job seeker, and by removing some of the discretion and struggle out of seeking a career, to some extent it alleviated stress. The problem with this approach was that for many people, it just did not work. It may be attractive to think that there is someone that can administer a couple of tests and then choose the “perfect job” for you but life is just not that simple.

Local psychologists Prof Jim Bright and Prof Robert Pryor, developed the “Chaos Theory of Careers” partly in response to this challenge. Of course it is difficult to try and summarise this theory into a few short bullet points without over-simplifying. However, for the purposes of this article the three principles of the theory that are most relevant are:

  1. Non-linearity Not all actions have predictable, proportional impacts on a career. A chance meeting or impulsive decision can sometimes have dramatic impacts on the course that an individual’s career takes.
  2. Emerging Patterns Patterns that occur in someone’s career over time are extremely important to identify. Often individuals do not realise that they are following a particular pattern of behaviour and this can be quite limiting. 
  3. Adaptation Over time the experiences that people have, the people they encounter and the places they go require them to adapt. Sometimes people can be so fundamentally impacted by a particular experience that the entire way that they see the world changes.

I believe that the implications of this theory for contemporary HR practice are significant. From a learning and development perspective, if we accept that chance events have a big impact on the career success of our staff, then there are some big implications for the way that we might develop them. This might mean trying to teach the types of behaviours that help people become more “lucky”. Things like lea

ed optimism, mindfulness, emotional intelligence and adaptive skills might be a more important part of our organisational capability plan than they are today.

Networking events and social networking websites might also be more important than we think. If we truly recognise the importance of chance meetings between people, should we not be encouraging such meetings to take place both within and outside of our organisation? During the 90s and “naughties” it was fashionable to save money by cancelling such functions and blocking access to sites like Facebook and Myspace. However, while we thought that we were saving money, we were also potentially destroying the social fabric of our organisations, making it less likely that our staff would experience the chance meetings that would potentially launch their careers to the next level.

What about development and succession plans? Having clear plans in place can give individuals’ focus and help the organisation support its staff in achieving their goals. These plans can also provide a useful tool for allocating and prioritising limited funds at budget time. However, setting a single goal can also be limiting. It can stop staff applying for inte

al opportunities. It can also provoke feelings of guilt or embarrassment if development goals change and make it less likely that staff will talk openly about this with their manager. We know that people do change and that some of the most successful people sometimes take BIG chances and risks with their careers. The challenge to the mode

people manager is how do we balance the need to have clear plans in place, but also nurture the type of environment where our staff are likely to benefit from serendipity within our organisation.

The single biggest implication of chaos theory is for managerial capability. What the chaos theory of careers reminds us is that no staff member can be pigeon-holed. Managers cannot read a book or adopt the latest fad and expect that it will be a silver bullet that will enable them to motivate and get the best out of all staff. Chaos theory puts the onus directly onto every manager to truly engage with their staff members. It is only by gaining a deep understanding of each staff member’s dreams and values that managers can choose the best way to manage each person and it is only by creating a truly twoway trusting relationship that a manager can hope to become aware of the way that each individual’s preferences, values and paradigms are changing over time. This message must be integrated into front-line management training with simple tools and models incorporated which enable our most important leaders to develop strong relationships with each of their people.

Chaos theory makes room for complexity and in doing so is itself a little complicated. This may deter some from exploring the theory further but its fundamental ideas are relatively simple to comprehend and apply. Although as good HR practitioners it is important to ensure that our processes are scalable and efficient, we must never forget that no two people are the same. Wherever possible, best practice HR systems must plan for complexity, adapt to change and above all ensure that nothing undermines the building of healthy relationships between our managers and staff.

For Further Reading on Chaos Theory

Bright, J.E.H, & Pryor, R.G.L. (2005). The chaos theory of careers: A user’s guide. The Career Development Quarterly, 53, 291-306.

Bright, J.E.H., Pryor, R.G.L., Wilkenfeld, S. & Earl, J. (2005). The role of social context and Serendipitous Events in Career Decision Making. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 5(1), 19-36.

Pryor, R.G.L. & Bright, J.E.H. (2003a). Order and Chaos: A Twenty-First Century Formulation Of Careers. Australian Journal of Psychology, 55 (2). 121-128.

Pryor, R.G.L. & Bright, J.E.H. (2003b). The Chaos Theory Of Careers. Australian Journal of Psychology 12(3), 12-20.

Schneider, M., & Somers, M. (2006). Organizations as complex adaptive systems: Implications of Complexity Theory for leadership research. The Leadership Quarterly, 17, 351-365.

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